Largest Mass Extinction caused by Mega-Eruptions in Siberia

Kerr, R.A. December 20, 2013. Mega-Eruptions Drove the Mother of Mass ExtinctionsScience  Vol. 342:1424 


After 20 years of trying, researchers have finally convicted massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia as the culprit in the greatest of all mass extinctions, one that destroyed 90% of marine species on the planet.

The key evidence came from geochronologists applying the latest dating techniques to both the basalt from the eruptions and the rock encasing fossils of creatures that went extinct about 252 million years ago.

“I’m excited by the very clean-looking dating,” says paleontologist Paul Olsen of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. “It shows you could in fact have the Siberian eruptions cause the mass extinction.” Now, the question is which of the many possible ways that the volcanism could have wiped out species was actually at work.

Suspicion fell on the Siberian Traps—a vast volcanic landscape—more than 2 decades ago because of its enormous size and its age. In one of the greatest volcanic outbursts in Earth’s history, these eruptions carpeted a Western Europe–sized area of Siberia with several million cubic kilometers of basalt.

The best estimate for the initial eruptions is 252.28 million years, with the beginning of the extinction at 251.941 million years ago and its end at 251.880 million years ago. Uncertainties ranged from 0.031 million to 0.110 million years. That puts the volcanic and extinction events in the proper order and close enough to be cause and effect.

Now, researchers will focus on possible kill mechanisms.

Paleontologist Shuzhong Shen said one suspect should be dropped: sudden global warming caused by carbon dioxide pouring from the traps’ eruptions.

Analyses of temperature-sensitive oxygen isotopes in sediments deposited around the time of the extinction reveal a whopping 8°C to 10°C warming, but the rocks show the warming came just after the extinction, ruling out a role in the die-off.

This suggests that the extinction was “very short, only a few thousand years,” a rapidity that supports other potential kill mechanisms including acid rain from sulfur dioxide emissions.

Injecting 1.5 billion tons of volcanic sulfur dioxide into a computer model of the Permian atmosphere acidified rain across the Northern Hemisphere to pH 2, about that of lemon juice. That would have been disastrous for exposed vegetation and every animal that depended on it.

The volcanism may also have touched off toxic coal fires.

As it erupted, the magma that formed the Siberian Traps is known to have pierced coal deposits with a result of a vast, subterranean, coal-fired inferno that belched metal-bearing ash into the stratosphere, where the toxic debris sifted across the Northern Hemisphere.

Now that geochronologists have refined their dating tools, they hope to test suspicions that volcanism was at work in other mass extinctions. Dates for the huge eruptions at the opening of the Atlantic Ocean 201 million years ago and the mass extinction that cleared the way for the dinosaurs overlap, but their order is yet to be determined (Science, 21 December 2012, p. 1522). And several other possible pairings await.

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How burning biomass made us human


[ This is a book review of Wrangham’s “Catching Fire: How cooking made us human”.

Fire enabled us to have larger brains from the increased calories in cooked food, held carnivores at bay, killed bacteria, and gave us many other advantages.

But it was burning coal, oil, and natural gas that briefly allowed us to become Homo Giganticus, conquering more than half of the world’s land mass for our crops and animals, driving hundreds of thousands, if not millions of species extinct already or within the next few hundred years.  Fossil fuels exploded the human population from 1 billion to 7.5 billion people, each of us equivalent to hundreds of locusts, devouring the majority of the bounty created by solar energy to grow plants and animals.

We stand on the precipice of descent now that the peak of conventional oil, 90% of our oil supplies — over half of it from just 500 giant oil fields discovered over 50 years ago — is behind us (2005).  Within 50 years or less, those who survive will go back to the past (there’ll still be a trickle of oil, coal, and natural gas obtainable in politically stable areas that haven’t drained their reserves so much that a technologically simpler society can’t reach them.  Once again we will rely on muscle and biomass power as we always have, and always will after the extremely brief age of fossils, which some scientists propose to name the Anthropocene.  We’re more than on the way in some places: biomass is over half of Europe’s renewable power

Since agriculture was invented, the energy that came from using trees to build and burn to melt metals out of ores, ceramics, glass, bricks, steel, and other objects requiring heat.  Biomass in the past is what made civilizations rise to never-before-seen heights, and then fall after deforestation and consequent topsoil loss that drastically lowered crop production (1).

And hundreds of thousands of years before that, burning biomass enabled us to become human (2).  Our brains never could have gotten as large eating raw food all day.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Richard Wrangham. 2009. Catching Fire: How cooking made us human.  

I’ve always loved creation myths.  How we came to be is a question all cultures ask and religions try to answer.  The Iroquois believed we were created by the Sky People. The Australian Aborigines by the Sun Mother, the African Bushmen that we emerged from the depths of the earth, and the Christian Bible believes in a God that made the universe in seven days and humans began with Adam and Eve.

It was only with the invention of science, which is basically a method of testing reality, that we have finally solved our true origin mystery of how the universe began and our own evolutionary history.  Wrangham adds to this evolving story by making the case that we couldn’t have evolved our large brains without fire.

Fire played a role in our evolution in many ways.  We could have never become the “Naked Ape” without fire, or we would have died of cold at night.

Becoming a naked ape opened a new niche. We became the best creature on earth at running long distances, and more importantly, could do this mid-day in heat that would kill furry creatures from overheating, and catch them (2).

Fire also kept dangerous animals at bay, killed bacteria so they didn’t sicken or kill us, made otherwise indigestible or poisonous food edible, reduced spoilage, dried our clothes, and signaled friends.  Cooked food tastes much better than raw food –just ask Koko the gorilla, who signed that she preferred cooked over raw food.  Children can be weaned earlier and grow faster. All of the above led to longer lives, which greatly shaped human societies.

A new and major finding of this book is that of all the ways fire has helped us, the most important may be cooked food, which has more usable calories that our body can digest fully than raw food, and that cooked food can be consumed much faster. So instead of spending over six hours a day chewing fruit and leaves like our chimpanzee relatives do, we only spend about an hour a day chewing.

Not only that, but you get more calories from cooked food than raw food.  This was only discovered recently when tests were done on people who’ve had their large intestines removed.  Food was taken out after the small intestine, which is where most of our ability to get nutrition takes place. After that, the bacteria in our large intestine steals most of the remaining food for themselves.

When you ask people what’s essential to survival, they’ll usually say food, water, and shelter.  But by the end of this book, most will add fire to the list.  And the soon to be 9 billion of us depend on fire far more than our ancestors did to stay alive, we are utterly dependent on the “fire” of the fossil fuels we burn to power transportation, the electric grid (coal and natural gas provide two-thirds of our electricity in the U.S.), heat and cool our homes, cook with, to make every product around us — try to think of anything in your life that doesn’t depend on energy.
For example, your body can digest 94% of the protein in cooked eggs, but only 65% raw.  This is because heat increases the digestibility of protein.  Besides heat, proteins are more digestible if denatured in acids like lemon juice – think of ceviche, pickling, marinades, salt, or drying.

If you’re a food geek, you’ll love all the details Wrangham has about what cooking does to food, why we get more calories from cooked than raw food, or the minutiae of your digestive system.  Perhaps you’ll even become a better cook learning how heat breaks down starches and protein, at what temperatures meat is most tender, food safety, and so on.

Wrangham makes the case we’re adapted and dependent on cooked food in the first few chapters showing how we’ve lost the ability to survive on raw food alone.  Although more studies need to be done, the current scientific consensus is that a strict diet of raw food does not provide an adequate energy supply.  Dieters take note!  Yes, there are raw food consumers who are alive and well, so you’ll need to read the details to find out why their food is quite different from what our ancestors would have found in the wild.

Rumors that tribal people like the Inuit ate their food raw turned out not to be true.  Certainly some food is eaten raw, especially the softer organs like liver or stomach, but most of the calories the Inuit eat are cooked.  Women use twigs in summer, and seal oil or blubber to boil meat in the winter.

All species of mammals digest cooked food easier.  Farmers like to give cooked swill to their animals because they gain weight much faster.  That’s why your pets get so fat, all pet food is cooked.

Our anatomy shows that we’ve adapted to cooked food.  We have weak jaws, and really small mouths and lips compared to our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, who need big mouths, lips, and strong jaws to digest leaves and fruit.

We use 20% of our energy to fuel our brains, which are only 2.5% of our body weight.  The average primate uses 13% and mammals 8 to 10% of their energy to fuel their brains.

That energy came from smaller guts, because with cooked food we didn’t need to have a large digestive system.  Birds also evolved a small gut system, but they put their extra energy into wing muscles.  We used the extra energy for brain power, because social intelligence helped people survive longer.

The shorter gut, bigger brain theory is far from proven, so stay tuned to whether this ends up being completely, or partially true, as an explanation of how we evolved.

The average human diet is two-thirds starchy food.  The finer the flour, the more it’s digested, and modern white flour is basically a starchy powder, which is why so many Americans are overweight.  Worse yet, these calories are empty since wheat and corn flour has been stripped of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.

The scientific human origin story unfolds like a mystery novel as each riddle is solved. One riddle that needs to be figured out is when humans first used fire. Unfortunately the evidence of the most ancient fires hasn’t survived, but archeologically there is good evidence of fires going back for 790,000 years.

Another riddle is when did we first control fire?  We couldn’t have depended on cooked food until we could make fire from scratch, which probably happened first in a place where both flint and pyrite rocks existed.  When struck together, they make excellent sparks and this method is used by hunter gatherers from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

We can also look at the skeletons of our ancestors going back 2 million years to see what and when changes in our anatomy happened.  We know from the Grant’s study of finches in the Galapagos and other research that evolution can happen very fast.   It’s likely that we evolved quickly once we became dependent on cooked food.

There have only been three times in the past 2 million years when evolution was so fast that our ancestor species names changed.  Atello and Wheeler believe that cooking was responsible for the transition from Homo erectus to homo heidelbergensis 800,000 years ago, but Wrangham believes this transition was much earlier, when Homo erectus emerged over 1.5 million years ago, and explains why and alternative theories for the other times we evolved quickly.

Years ago         Species    Brain size  (cubic inches)      Weight (lbs)

2,300,000     Homo habilis                    37                   70- 81

1,800,000     Homo erectus                   53                123-145

800,000        Homo heidelbergensis       73

200,000        Homo sapiens                  85

It’s the social ramifications of eating cooked food that may be of the most interest.  A division of labor between men and women dramatically changed how we lived and related to one another, freed up time to pursue cultural activities, and made a much higher standard of living possible.

But the dark side is that men used their larger size to get out of the most boring chores.  In 98% of all societies, past and present, women do most or all of the cooking.  Even in the most egalitarian societies that have ever existed, like the Vanatina of the South Pacific, women did the cooking, washing dishes, fetching water and firewood, sweeping, and so on.  Meanwhile the men sat on verandahs chewing betel nuts.

It may have all started as a protection racket – men protected women from being robbed of their food by hungry groups of men in exchange for women cooking their meals.

Bonobo females form fighting alliances to protect themselves from male bullying, but in all other great ape species, including ours, women lose out to men.  Although Wrangham says that women can try to use their cooking as a form of empowerment by threatening to leave or not cooking if their husband is too abusive.

In Inuit societies, wives made warm, dry hunting clothes, and spent many hours cooking.  A man didn’t have time to hunt, make clothes, and cook, so a wife was essential to survival.  Desperate bachelors often tried to steal other men’s wives, usually killing the husband.  So men killed strangers on sight to prevent their wives from being stolen.

In the Tiwi culture, old men got the young wives, so 90% of men’s first marriages were to widows as old as sixty.  But the young men didn’t mind, because the wives cooked for them.  In most societies, bachelors are miserable.

In the end, Wrangham unravels far more than some of the riddles of the mystery of our creation, but also why we are getting so fat today, and the way that cooking and eating created how humans live and how men and women relate to each other.


(1) John Perlin. 2005. A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization.

(2) Jared Diamond. 2006.The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal“.

(3) Nina Jablonski.  2006. Skin, A Natural History.  University of California Press.


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North American freshwater mussels are going extinct

Stokstad, E. 2012. Nearly Buried, Mussels Get a Helping Hand. Science Vol. 338, Issue 6109, pp. 876-878


Freshwater mussels are in trouble. They are the most endangered group of organisms in the United States, with most of their river and stream habitats devastated by dams, pollution, and invasive species such as the zebra mussel.

Thirty-five species have been declared extinct, others are likely gone, and more than 70 species are teetering on the brink. “It’s the biggest conservation crisis in the U.S. that no one talks about,” says Paul Johnson, who directs the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center in Marion.

Lab studies show that mussels are sensitive to a number of common but poorly regulated water contaminants, such as the surfactants in the common herbicide glyphosate. In a detailed field study, it was found that the absence of juveniles was highly correlated with ammonia—likely from fertilizer or manure—in the sediment where the mussels burrow. Spikes in ammonia concentrations may be responsible for widespread declines of freshwater mussel populations, especially in agricultural areas. Some ecologists suspect that the current level permitted in surface water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is dangerous for mussels.

The accelerating disappearance of mussels “really is a strong statement about what we’ve done to rivers,” Bringolf says. In the Mississippi River Basin alone, perhaps less than 10% of the original habitat of endangered mussels remains unaltered by dams.

North America is home to a record diversity of freshwater mussels with dazzling reproductive strategies and key ecological roles. But can they withstand the hard knocks of a modern world?

North American has the world’s greatest number of mussel species — 297– more than two-thirds of which are concentrated in the southeastern United States. Some rivers have more species of mussels than are found in all of Europe.

North America owes its astounding freshwater biodiversity in large part to unique geology, which has provided a stable environment that enabled mussels to thrive and diversify for 60 million years. Historically, expansive shoals of mussels served as habitat for other aquatic organisms. By filtering water, mussels move nutrients through the food web, supporting nearby terrestrial ecosystems as well.

People have also long benefited from mussels. Massive middens hint at the untold numbers harvested by Native Americans for food.

What has caused serious harm is widespread fragmentation and loss of habitat. Mining and deforestation, which polluted streams and clogged them with sediment, were already problems by the late 19th century. The worst trouble started in the early 1900s, when engineers built locks and dams in large numbers. These efforts culminated in the gargantuan dams constructed across the southeastern United States by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the 1930s and ’40s. Most mussel species can’t live in the slow, muddy water and silty bottoms of the reservoirs formed by these dams. Nor can half the fish species that mussels need as hosts for their larvae.

The Snuffbox mussel

Every spring, a freshwater mussel called the snuffbox emerges from gravel stream bottoms for a violent bout of reproductive deception. The females have spent months buried in the sediment, brooding thousands of larvae that require a certain host to mature. Now the mussels lie on the streambed, their shells open wide. Playing dead, they wait for just the right fish to approach.

That fish, the logperch, spends its days hunting for insect larvae and fish eggs, rummaging under small stones and empty shells. When a logperch pokes its snout inside a snuffbox (Epioblasma triquetra), the mussel snaps shut. The fish is trapped between the serrated edges. For other fishes, this mistake would be fatal, but the logperch has a reinforced skull. As the fish struggles, the mussel pumps out its larvae, which clamp their tiny shells onto the filaments of the logperch’s gills. Then the mussel lets go. After several weeks of hitchhiking, the juvenile mussels drop from the gills and settle into their new habitat.

This aggressive tactic is just one of the remarkable behaviors that freshwater mussels use to reproduce and spread upstream. Other species attract their fish hosts with lures that resemble fish eggs, crayfish, or even swimming minnows. “It’s some of the most amazing mimicry in the world,” says restoration biologist Jess Jones of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The snuffbox was put on the U.S. endangered species list this past February; biologists estimate its population has declined by 90% over the past century. This month, FWS added another eight mussel species to its list.



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Corruption and economic instability in the news

[ I can’t keep up with the flood of news about on fraud and economic instability, so below are a few of the stories I don’t have time to write up. But there are hundreds of stories every month, too many to list or keep up with.  See the Automated Earth for the best one-stop-shopping for economic news and financial corruption.

I’m including “money” related issues because energyskeptic is my attempt to write a “wiki” of important posts about the fall of western civilization as we know it from an enormous number of factors.  Although a lack of oil to keep heavy-duty vehicles running will be the real reason civilization crashes, most will think it’s due to a financial crash. That’s a good thing since people are likely to behave better if they think it’s yet another bust in a boom-bust economic system.  Awareness that its a lack of energy could lead to panic, since  a lack of fossil fuels is permanent, enabled an extra 6 billion people to be born, and has no remedy. 

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Fraud, corruption, and economic instability

Economic Instability – signs of a crash ahead?

2016-10-24. As Europe and Asia Hoard Cash, Economists See Echoes of Crisis.

2016-9-27. Global Container Volume on Track for Worst Year Since 2009.  Flat growth in the beleaguered shipping industry could set off further bankruptcies and possible acquisitions. Wall Street Journal.

Another financial crash worse than 2009

2016-04-03 Stanley Druckenmiller: “This Is The Most Unsustainable Situation I Have Seen In My Career”. Simple Math Shows America Is Headed for an Economic Disaster

Wall Street


2016-04-09 Wells Fargo “Admits Deceiving” U.S. Government, Pays Record $1.2 Billion Settlement

Fracked oil and gas “tight” bubble

Mortgage Bubble

2010-10-14 Same Person Forged Billions of Dollars Worth of Mortgage Documents for Bank of America, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and Dozens of Other Lenders and Shells

Subprime auto loan bubble

2014-07-20 “Buying the Car Was the Worst Decision I Ever Made”: The Subprime Auto Loan Bubble Bursts

Student debt bubble

2016-04-07 Shocking statistic: Over 40% of student borrowers don’t make payments


Distribution of Wealth

Tax Havens


2016-04-06 Rotten to the core.  Think the $100,000 you have really exists?

Capital controls and the war on cash

Negative interest rates

Helicopter money to keep economy going

2016-04-07 JPM, ECB Hint at Arrival of “Helicopter Money” in Europe Following Next “Significant Downturn”

Economists are idiots

The new astrology. By fetishizing mathematical models, economists turned economics into a highly paid pseudoscience

Defense Department

2015-04-21 F35, The jet that ate the pentagon ($1.5 trillion so far)







Posted in ! About Corruption | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Millions of Americans have tropical diseases they’re unaware of

MacKenzie, D. December 14, 2013. America’s hidden epidemic. NewScientist.

Increasing climate change and poverty are likely to increase the numbers of people with these diseases.

An estimated 330,000 US citizens, and possibly as many as a million, carry the parasite that causes Chagas disease. It is a chronic, silent infection that leads to lethal heart or gut damage in 40 per cent of cases. It is the most common parasitic disease in the Americas, and it can be treated – if the doctor is aware of it. Most US doctors aren’t.

Then there are intestinal worms, a chronic infestation that spreads in faeces and drains energy and nutrients from children across Africa. Cases aren’t supposed to occur in rich countries. Yet Toxocara canis, an intestinal worm that can cause asthma and epilepsy, is carried by 21 per cent of black people in the US – compared with 31 per cent of people in central Nigeria.

Under the radar

Diseases commonly associated with tropical climates and impoverished countries are hurting the US too. There is inadequate research to provide confident numbers, but the best estimates suggest that millions of US citizens are affected.

Parasitic worms

Toxocariasis 1.3-2.8 million cases
Strongyloidiasis 68,000–100,000
Ascariasis 4 million
Cysticercosis 41,000–169,000
Schistosomiasis 8,000

Protozoan parasites

Chagas disease 330,000
Toxoplasmosis 1.1 million
Trichomoniasis 7.4 million


Dengue fever 110,000-200,000 (acute cases annually)

Posted in Disease, Disease, Poverty | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Germany’s “Energiewende” may need to be rescued with nonrenewable coal power

[ Below is my summary of The Energiewende is Running Up Against Its Limits (October 24, 2016) by Jeffrey Michel at the Energy Collective. Wealthy, well-educated Germany has tried harder and longer than most nations to make a transition to renewables. If Germany can’t pull it off, that doesn’t bode well for other nations.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Germany’s “energiewende” is a plan to switch from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) to renewable, sustainable energy.  But this goal will be even harder to reach after the decision to abandon nuclear power, adding another 22% required from renewable generation. South Germany, where most of the industry lies, doesn’t have enough solar or wind to power their region, so a massive expansion of the grid will be required to get power from elsewhere, which may prove to be too expensive:

Posted in National Super Grid, Renewable Integration | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Are biofuels a sustainable and viable energy strategy?

[In 2000, Melanie Kenderine at the U.S. Department of energy stated that: “This nation has abundant biomass resources (grasses, trees, agricultural wastes) that have the potential to provide power, fuels, chemicals and other bio-based products” (136).

That’s a good point — biofuels are the only sustainable choice after fossil fuels are gone for transportation, but they’re ALSO the only sustainable source to generate electricity, to cook and heat with, make and provide the feedstock for half a million products, the heat source for steel and cement, and so on.

But is there really enough biomass to do all of these things? Both papers below explain why biomass can’t scale up to provide more than a small fraction of energy in the future for transportation, let alone all the other needs.

Nearly all heavy-duty trucks run on diesel exclusively.  Diesel engines can’t burn ethanol, diesohol, or gasoline, and most engine warranties allow zero to at most 20% biodiesel to be mixed in with petroleum-derived diesel. So why are we making ethanol?  Civilization ends when trucks stop running. Why aren’t we getting cars off the road ASAP to free up fuel for trucks, locomotives, and ships? Especially since biodiesel scales up even less well than ethanol.  Both probably have a negative energy return on invested (EROI) or at best are break-even, so it’s a shame that meanwhile we’re destroying topsoil, exhausting aquifers, and polluting land, air, and water with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to make biofuels, when post-fossil fuels organic topsoil will be the most valuable asset we have.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Gomiero, Tiziano. June 30, 2015. Are Biofuels an Effective and Viable Energy Strategy for Industrialized Societies? A Reasoned Overview of Potentials and Limits. Sustainability 2015, 7, 8491-8521.

Excerpts from this 31 page article follow.

For our industrial society to rely on “sustainable biofuels” for an important fraction of its energy, most of the agricultural and non-agricultural land would need to be used for crops, and at the same time a radical cut to our pattern of energy consumption would need to be implemented, whilst also achieving a significant population reduction.

Some scholars questioned the energy efficiency of biofuels, claiming that it was an unproductive enterprise (e.g., [2–13]), a point already made in the 1970s by energy experts such as Prof. David Pimentel [2], and Prof. Vaclav Smil [4].

Biofuels, in fact, call for the adoption of those very same agricultural practices that for decades have been blamed for being highly energy inefficient and water consuming, and for contaminating the environment and threatening biodiversity and soil health [2–5,14–17].

Other works highlighted that, contrary to current belief, biofuel production may cause net CO2 emission, in particular when tropical forests and pristine land are converted to plantations and crops for biofuel production [18–20].

The interest in biofuel as a potential sustainable and renewable energy source is still high, as is attested by numerous scientific journals recently created in its name, and the number of funded research projects that focus on this topic. Private investments and public subsidies are still poured into this sector. Since the crisis, however, the focus shifted from first-generation biofuels (or the use of fuel crops) to second-generation biofuels, i.e., the use of cellulosic ethanol (crop residues, woody biomass), and then to third-generation biofuels, i.e., oil from algae.

Palm oil is also becoming of high interest for the biofuel market, and  there is a risk that palm oil plantations may further increase the displacement of native forests in tropical countries (as happened for sugarcane plantations in Brazil), or replace other food crops, without providing any benefits to farmers. After the plantation is discontinued (20–25 years), the soil is then ruined and cannot easily serve for further agricultural activities.

Findings from different experts, however, diverge considerably. Some authors claim that biofuels may represent an efficient alternative to oil, some of them referring to fuel crops, while others only refer to cellulosic ethanol. Other authors claim that biofuels and biomass in general are instead an inefficient alternative to fossil fuels. So, how is it possible that highly respected scholars can reach such opposing conclusions?

We have to face the fact that data-gathering systems rely on different approaches and methodologies, involving different focuses, models, assumptions and scale of analysis. To begin with, a major problem arises with the choice of system boundaries, the “boundary dilemma” as Smil [32] (p. 275) put it. The choices over where to make our system end can lead to large differences in the results [12,28,32]. Borrion et al. [34], in their extensive review of environmental LCA of lignocellulosic ethanol conversion, conclude that results strongly depend on system boundary, functional unit, data quality and allocation methods chosen. The authors also make an important remark stating that “The lack of available data from commercial second generation ethanol plant and the uncertainties in technology performance have made the LCA study of the lignocellulosic ethanol conversion process particularly difficult and challenging.” [34] (p. 4648).

Assessments are scale dependent (and of course value laden, a matter which scientists often prefer not to confront). This means that before the assessment exercise takes place we have to frame properly the context in which we are operating. To put it simply, do cars pollute? It depends on how many cars we are talking about, the performance of their engines, their average speed, the quality of the fuel, etc. New “clean” engines on many new cars may cause more pollution than old dirty engines on few old cars; scale matters. But the scale has to be decided before carrying out the assessment. There is a very telling example concerning the calculation of biofuel efficiency presented by Shapouri et al. [36] vs. Giampietro et al. [26], on how to account for co-products. I quote [3] (p. 33)

Prof. David Pimentel was also a co-author of the paper [12]), as it is explained very clearly: “Shapouri et al. reported a net energy return of 67% after including the co-products, primarily dried distillers grain (DDG) used to feed cattle. These co-products are not fuel!

Giampietro et al. (1997) observed that although the by-product DDG may be considered as a positive output in the calculation of the output/input energy ratio in ethanol production, in a large-scale production of ethanol fuel, the DDG would be many times the commercial livestock feed needs each year in the U.S. (Giampietro et al. 1997).

It follows then that in a large-scale biofuel production, the DDG could become a serious waste disposal problem and increase the energy costs.” For issue of scale was also pointed out by Smil [4], in his assessment of the program PROALCOL, launched by the Brazilian government. Apart from a number of problems identified by Smil [4], (e.g., soil erosion, land conversion, productivity-related issues, economic viability), the author stressed that in order to achieve the production of ethanol from sugarcane forecast by the government, the process would have to also produce each year more than 150 million m3 of vinhoto, the residue of the process. Such a byproduct can be dried up and used as feed, but that is a highly energy-intensive process. The liquid may be used as fertilizer, but it requires logistics for concentrating it, transporting it around the country, etc. So the usual solution is dumping the fluid into the nearest water bodies, and in that context, vinhoto is a very serious pollutant.

For more examples on how the scale issue matters, I refer the reader to [12,37].

On the energy analysis of biofuels, a fierce debate surrounds the issue of providing an accurate EROI estimate for biofuels, but this really has to do with a few decimals below or above one, as the EROI for biofuels is between 0. 8 and 1.6.

This issue should not be a matter of concern, as fossil fuels, which fuel industrial societies, generate an EROI of 20–30 or more [12,27,29]. The fact that there are cases where biofuels can be produced at higher EROI does not really change the judgment over the low performance of biomass.

The power density of the energy source, that is to say the rate of energy flux per unit of area (W/m2), is a key indicator [4–7]. Concerning power density, fossil fuels perform from 300 to 3000 times better than the best biofuel.

See also Smil [7] (p. 265), for data about the power density of various kinds of biomass energy production.

Giampietro and colleagues [12,26] argue that developed societies, in order to sustain their level of metabolism, require an energy throughput in the energy sector ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 MJ per hour of labor. The fact that the range of values achievable with biofuel are just 250–1600 MJ per hour of labor says it all. Of course, we may argue that this is a positive outcome, as it allows the creation of more jobs and reduce unemployment. Nevertheless, if wages in those jobs have to be comparable to those in other sectors of society, the cost of energy will skyrocket

On the biophysical side, one of these indicators is energy density. The final cost of energy in economic terms is, of course, another key issue. Biofuels can be produced only thanks to subsidies. A number of qualitative indicators are also highly relevant such as: the level of contamination produced, the reliability of the supply, and the level of risk involved [5–7,12,13,29].

It should be clear, therefore, that to perform a sound and effective assessment of an energy source is far from being a simple task, and requires the adoption of a number of different indicators related to different criteria and scales. The narrative about biofuels, instead, has been and still is, dangerously simplistic.

At present, the energetic discourse on biofuels is focused on the EROI, but, as we have seen, the EROI is just part of the story. The main problem with biofuels is that they have a power density that is simply too low and this requires handling an enormous quantity of biomass, costing society a lot of working time and capital. Those characteristics make biofuels unable to supply energy to match the metabolic rate of energy consumption of developed countries [5,6,12,26,32].

For our industrial society to rely on “sustainable biofuels” for an important fraction of its energy, it would require a complete reshaping of its metabolism:

  • cropping most of the agricultural and non-agricultural land, affecting food supply and food affordability, increasing the impact on natural resources (water, soil health, pollution, loss of biodiversity);
  • implementing an amazing occupational shift by sending millions of people back to the fields, which will increase the cost of energy (or at least drastically reduce the wages of those working in the sector);
  • cutting our pattern of energy consumption, given the reduced flow of net energy;
  • a consistent reduction of population size and consumption would be required;
  • dealing with a continuous risk of running out of energy due to climate extremes, pests, etc.;
  • such a massive amount of biomass may not be sustainable in the long term, and in the short run, it would require increasing amounts of input.

In summary, for a society (as for any living organism) the energetic supply is a matter of vital importance. The key factors being: (1) the quality of the energy source (fossil fuels are much better than biomass as most of the work has already been done by the Earth’s ecosystems and geological forces over hundreds of millions of years); and (2) the overall efficiency of the supply process (extraction, transformation, etc.), that is to say, the net energy supplied to society at the proper rate of delivery, able to match the rate of energy demand. If the supply of energy cannot match the rate of metabolic energy consumption, society will reduce its metabolism accordingly.

Subsidies: Are They the Key for Biofuel Sustainability?

Pimentel, Smil and Youngquist, were critical towards the real efficiency of biomass as an energy source, and posed important questions concerning its economic efficiency and environmental impact (e.g., soil, water, use of agrochemicals). Youngquist claims that ethanol policy in the USA is a mere political issue, with politicians granting subsidies for inefficient ethanol production in order to secure the votes from Corn Belt electors: “The answer is that it is an example of politics overriding reason. The political block of the corn belt states holds votes crucial to elections, and companies which produce ethanol in the United States have been some of the largest contributors to political campaign funds in recent years” [43] (pp. 243–244).

Subsidies are still the main driving force shaping biofuel policy and trade, and ultimately they keep all this going. Even with oil at 100US$/barrel, biofuels were still not competitive and needed subsidies (and that can also be expected, as a lot of fossil fuel is required to carry out intensive agriculture) [12,44,45].

Koplow and Steenblik [45], estimate that in 2008, in the USA, total support towards ethanol production ranged between 9.0 and 11.0 billion US$, with subsidies between 2009 and 2012 accounting for about 50% (up to 80% in 2007) of the ethanol market price. These figures are likely an underestimate, given the many faces economic support can take (from tax exemption to price premium), rendering precise subsidy assessment a difficult task [44,45].

According to the IEA, biofuel subsidies amounted to about US$22 billion in 2010, and are projected to increase to up to US$67 billion per year in 2035 [44]. Note that fossil fuel benefits from subsidies, too. Fossil-fuel subsidies are estimated at between US$45–75 billion a year in OECD countries and at US$409 billion in 2010 in non-OECD countries [44]. Some authors (e.g., [46]) back subsidy policy of biofuels on the basis that “In any case, the size of the support of biofuels is small (the authors are referring to the figure of US$ 20 billion they present earlier), in relation to the cost of fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $312 billion worldwide in 2009”. This reasoning is evidently flawed. The comparison refers to the total value, but has to be done on a per-unit basis instead. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy [47], in 2009 fossil fuel consumption amounted to about 10,000 Mt oil equivalent (3809 Mt oil, 2690 Mtoe gas, 3547 Mtoe coal), while biofuel amounted to about 52 Mt oil equivalent.

Subsidies turn out to be 3.1 million US$ per Mt oil eq. in the case of fossil fuels (US$ 3/t), and 423 million US$ per Mt oil eq. in the case of biofuels (US$423/t), 136 times more. We may well wonder what are we doing with biofuels!

Who benefits most from these subsidies? In the USA, federal and state subsidies for ethanol production, that total more than US$7 per bushel of corn, have been always mainly paid to large corporations [9,45,49]. It thus seems that those who will gain from subsidies are large corporations that sell the fossil-fuel-derived inputs, and the losers are the farmers, the consumers and the tax payers! And the environment, of course.

The USA population, 310 million in 2009, will reach 440 million by 2050 (US Census Bureau, 2009). According to Nowak and Walton [73], the rate of rural land lost to development in the 1990s was about 0.4 million ha per year and the authors warn that if this rate continues until 2050, USA will have lost an additional 44 million ha of rural countryside. Such areas will be lost mostly at the expense of agriculture or conservative land programs. Brown [74] points out that the USA, with its 214 million motor vehicles, paved an estimated 16 million ha of land (in comparison to the 20 million ha that US farmers plant in wheat). About 13% of U.S. land area is currently dedicated to highways and urbanization, so adding other 150 million people will dramatically affect both the demand for food, as well as the demand for space (e.g., urbanization and highways).

Promoting the extensive cultivation of species suitable for biofuel production would increase two of the major causes of biodiversity loss on the planet, namely the clearing and conversion of yet more natural areas for monocultures, and the invasion by non-native species.

“Carbon Debt”: Biofuels and Increasing Carbon Emissions

The belief that burning biomass is carbon neutral has been questioned. Such an idea is founded upon the rather simplistic reasoning that CO2 released in the burning is picked up again by plants, giving a net release of zero. There are a number of reasons why this is not so. Displacing tropical ecosystems in favor of plantations causes the loss of aboveground biomass, and also the release of a huge amount of carbon stored in the soil (about 50% of the total carbon in tropical forests is stored in the soil). Plantations will never store as much biomass as native ecosystems, and that leads to net carbon emissions. Converting grasslands into fuel crops will cause the net emission of the carbon stored in the native ecosystem.

Estimates concerning the “carbon debt” (the carbon that is lost in land use change) have been already published (e.g., [18,19]:

  • the conversion of rainforests, peatlands, savannas. Brazil and Southeast Asia may create a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual GHGs reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels;
  • in the USA, corn-based ethanol will nearly double GHG emissions over 30 years, while cropping grasslands to produce biofuels (e.g., with switchgrass), will increase GHG emissions by 50%. Some USA public institutions concluded that much worse problems may be caused by fuel crops than by fossil fuels, due to corn ethanol and biodiesel made from soybean oil causing a large amount of land conversion to create a high “carbon debt” [88,89];
  • in a meta-analysis carried out by Piñeiro et al. [90] on 142 soil studies, the authors conclude that soil C sequestered by setting aside former agricultural land was greater than the C credits generated by planting corn for ethanol on the same land for 40 years, and that C releases from the soil after planting corn for ethanol may, in some cases, completely offset C gains attributed to biofuel generation for at least 50 years.

It has been suggested that agricultural intensification may help reduce the expansion of plantations into pristine ecosystems. However, recent analysis found that using high-yielding oil palm crops to intensify productivity and then preserving the remaining biodiversity may not work either. Carrasco et al. [95], for example, argue that using high-yielding oil palm crops could actually lead to further tropical deforestation. That is because palm oil will become cheaper on the global food markets and will outcompete biofuels grown in temperate regions. That in turn will increase the planting of oil palm in tropical regions. In fact, paradoxically, while developed countries are claiming to import biofuels from tropical regions in order to reduce their CO2 emission, they are actually contributing to an amplification of the problem, and concurring to fuel the process of tropical deforestation [18,19,44,96,97]. Houghton [98] warns that, between 1990 and 2010, forest degradation and deforestation accounted for 15% of anthropogenic carbon emissions and argues that we have to work to stop this trend. The author is rather critical about the international biofuel trade, which, he claims, is driven by distortions generated by the high subsidies in place in the USA and the EU, and is not going to work towards halting deforestation.

The greater availability of crop residues and weed seeds translates to increased food supplies both for invertebrates and vertebrates, which play important ecological functions in agro-ecosystems, influencing, among other things: soil structure, nutrients cycling and water content, and the resistance and resilience against environmental stress and disturbance [57,115–120].

When compared to corn grain, it takes 2 to 5 times more cellulosic biomass to obtain the same amount of starch and sugars. This means that 2 to 5 times more biomass has to be produced and handled in order to obtain the same starches as for corn grain [9].

Tilman et al. [21] suggest that all 235 million hectares of grassland available in the USA, plus crop residues, can be converted into cellulosic ethanol, recommending that crop residues, like corn stover, can be harvested and utilized as a fuel source. I have already mentioned residues; as for the use of grassland, this cannot be considered an empty space. There are tens of millions of livestock (cattle, sheep, and horses) grazing on that land, as well as all the wild fauna and flora living in those ecosystems [122];

Some energy analysts consider the biofuel “solution” so completely unrealistic that it should not even be worth any attention (e.g., [4,6,10,12]). Pimentel in his edited book on renewable energies [10], closes the work with chapter 20, on algae, consisting of two pages, summary and references included [126] (pp. 499–500). Pimentel claims that properly accounting for all the costs and assuming a realistic energy production level would lead to an estimated algal oil barrel cost of 800 US$.


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Searchinger, Tim; Heimlich, Ralph. 2015. Avoiding bioenergy competition for food crops and land. World Resources Institute, part 9 of “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”.

Excerpts from this 44 page report:

What is the role of bioenergy in a sustainable food future? The answer must recognize the intense global competition for land, and that any dedicated use of land for bioenergy inherently comes at the cost of not using that land for food, feed, or sustained carbon storage.

The world needs to close a 70% gap between the crop calories that were available in 2006 and the calorie needs anticipated in 2050. During the same period, demand for meat and dairy is projected to grow by more than 80%, and demand for commercial timber and pulp is likely to increase by roughly the same percentage.

Yet three-quarters of the world’s land area capable of supporting vegetation is already managed or harvested to meet human food and fiber needs. Much of the rest contains the world’s remaining natural ecosystems, which need to be conserved and restored to store carbon and combat climate change, to protect freshwater resources, and to preserve the planet’s biological diversity.

A growing quest for bioenergy exacerbates this competition for land. In the past decade, governments have pushed to increase the use of bioenergy—the use of recently living plants for energy (biodiesel, ethanol, cellulosic fuels)—by using crops for transportation biofuels and increasingly by harvesting trees for power generation. Although increasing energy supplies has provided one motivation, the belief that bioenergy use will help combat climate change has been another. However, bioenergy that entails the dedicated use of land to grow the energy feedstock will undercut efforts to combat climate change and to achieve a sustainable food future.

Would cellulosic biofuels avoid this competition for food? Cellulosic biofuels (sometimes referred to as “second generation”) may use crop residues or other wastes, but most plans for these biofuels rely on planting and harvesting fast-growing trees or grasses. At least some direct competition with food is still likely because such trees and grasses grow best and are most easily harvested on relatively flat, fertile lands—the type of land already dedicated to crops.

The push for bioenergy is extending beyond transportation biofuels to the harvest of trees and other sources of biomass for electricity and heat generation.

Some organizations have advocated for a bioenergy target of meeting 20% of the world’s total energy demand by the year 2050, which would require around 225 exajoules of energy in biomass per year. That amount, however, is roughly equivalent to the total amount of biomass people harvest today—all the crops, plant residues, and trees harvested by people for food, timber, and other uses, plus all the grass consumed by livestock around the world.

The world will still need food for people, fodder for livestock, residues for replenishing agricultural soils, wood pulp for paper, and timber for construction and other purposes. To meet these needs at today’s level while at the same time meeting a 20% bioenergy target in 2050, humanity would need to at least double the world’s annual harvest of plant material in all its forms. Those increases would have to come on top of the already large increases needed to meet growing food and timber needs.

Today, the best estimates are that agriculture and some kind of forestry use three-quarters of all the world’s vegetated land, and agriculture consumes around 85% of the freshwater people withdraw from rivers, lakes or aquifers. Seen in this context of land and water scarcity, the quest for bioenergy at a meaningful scale—even assuming large future increases in efficiency—is both unrealistic and unsustainable.

Even assuming large increases in efficiency, the quest for bioenergy at a meaningful scale is both unrealistic and unsustainable.

Why does a small share of energy require such vast amounts of biomass? Although photosynthesis is an effective means of producing food, wood products, and carbon stored in vegetation, it is an inefficient means of converting the energy in the sun’s rays into a form of non-food energy useable by people.

Fast-growing sugarcane on highly fertile land in Brazil, for example, converts only around 0.5 percent of incoming solar radiation into sugar, and only around 0.2 percent ultimately into ethanol. For maize grown in Iowa, the energy conversion rate is around 0.3 percent into biomass and 0.15 percent into ethanol. Even assuming highly optimistic estimates of future yields and conversion efficiencies, fast-growing grasses on productive U.S. farmland would only do slightly better, converting around 0.7 percent of sunlight into biomass and around 0.35 percent into ethanol. Such low conversion efficiencies explain why it takes a large amount of productive land to yield a small amount of bioenergy.

Is bioenergy nevertheless good for climate? Burning biomass, whether directly as wood or in the form of ethanol or biodiesel, emits carbon dioxide, just like burning fossil fuels. In fact, burning biomass directly emits at least a little more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels for the same amount of generated energy. But most calculations claiming that bioenergy reduces greenhouse gas emissions relative to burning fossil fuels do not include the carbon dioxide released when biomass is burned. They exclude it based on the theory that this release of carbon dioxide is matched and implicitly “offset” by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants growing the biomass feedstock. Yet if those plants were going to grow anyway, simply diverting them to bioenergy does not remove any additional carbon from the atmosphere and therefore does not offset emissions from burning that biomass.

In 2010, biofuels provided roughly 2.5% of the energy in the world’s transportation fuel (the fuel used for road vehicles, airplanes, trains, and ships).  On a net basis, these 108 billion liters of biofuel provided roughly half a percent of global delivered energy.  These liters came overwhelmingly from food crops: ethanol distilled mainly from maize, sugarcane, sugar beets, or wheat (88.7 billion liters), and biodiesel refined from vegetable oils (19.6 billion liters).

The United States, Canada, and Brazil accounted for about 90% of ethanol production, while Europe accounted for about 55% of biodiesel production.10 Overall, excluding feed byproducts, about 3.3 exajoules (EJ)11 of energy in crops were grown around the world for biofuels in 2010, using 4.7% of the energy content of all crops.


Some biofuel proponents suggest that switching biofuels away from food crops to various forms of “cellulose”— sometimes referred to as “second generation” biofuels— would avoid competition with food. Cellulose forms much of the harder, inedible structural parts of plants, and researchers are devoting great effort to find ways of converting cellulose into ethanol more efficiently. In theory, almost any plant material could fuel this ethanol, including crop residues and much garbage. Such “waste” would not compete with food and, in a later section, we discuss the merits, demerits, and potential for its use. Yet the potential for wastes to provide energy on a large scale is sufficiently limited that virtually all plans for future large-scale biofuel production assume that most of the biomass for bioenergy would come from fast-growing trees and grasses planted for energy.

For these reasons, most studies of sustainable bioenergy— including biofuel—potential assume that bioenergy crops will not be grown on existing cropland. But yields on poorer, less fertile land tend to be substantially lower. More fundamentally, using less fertile land for bioenergy still uses land. Land that can grow bioenergy crops reasonably well will typically grow other plants well, too—if not food crops, then trees and shrubs that provide carbon storage, watershed protection, wildlife habitat, and other benefits. In Appendix A, we address various claims of the availability of such non-croplands for bioenergy. We argue that studies that find large bioenergy potential systematically “double count” land for biofuels that is already producing vegetation meeting other important human needs.

Unfortunately, growing trees and grasses well requires fertile land, resulting in potential land competition with food production. In general, growing grasses and trees on cropland generates the highest yields but is unlikely to produce more biofuel per hectare than today’s dominant ethanol food crops (i.e. 1 hectare of maize produces 1,600 gallons of ethanol).  For cellulosic ethanol production to match this figure, the grasses or trees must achieve almost double the national cellulosic yields estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and two to four times the perennial grass yields farmers actually achieve today.  Although there are optimistic projections for even higher yields, they are unrealistically predicated on small plot trials by scientists—sometimes only a few square meters. Scientists can devote greater attention to crops than can real farmers, and field trials for all types of crops nearly always produce far higher yields than those that farmers achieve in practice.

Some of the bioenergy literature calls for the use of “marginal” or “degraded” lands, relying on studies that use large-scale maps. However, these areas that appear to be unused and available for bioenergy using a coarse satellite map often turn out to be in some use upon closer examination. If millions of potentially productive hectares were truly both unused and not storing carbon, it should be easy to identify them specifically, but thus far no closer examinations have done so.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), among others, has suggested a goal of supplying 20% of the world’s energy use in the year 2050 from bioenergy. Since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects global primary energy use in 2050 to be 900 EJ per year, a 20% target equates to 180 EJ per year. How much plant material would that require? To get a sense of how much, consider that in 2000 the total amount of energy in all the crops, plant residues, and wood harvested by people for all applications (e.g., food, construction, paper) and in all the biomass grazed by livestock around the world was roughly 225 EJ.  This amount of energy could in theory be liberated by perfect combustion of this biomass. But combustion is not perfect. Factoring in relative energy conversion efficiencies, this 225 EJ of biomass would optimistically replace about 180 EJ of primary energy from fossil fuels.  Thus, it would take the entirety of human plant harvests in the year 2000 to meet a 20 percent bioenergy target in the year 2050.

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Why tar sands, a toxic ecosystem-destroying asphalt, can’t fill in for declining conventional oil

[ This is a book review of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, 2010 edition, 280 pages, by Andrew Nikiforuk.

tar-sands-aerial-views tar-sands-aerial-views-2tar-sands-plantsMany “energy experts” have said that a Manhattan tar sands project could prevent oil decline in the future.   But that’s not likely. Here are a few reasons why:  

  1. Reaching 5 Mb/d will get increasingly (energy) expensive. Because there’s only enough natural gas to mine 29% of tar sands(and limited water as well)
  2. Since there isn’t enough natural gas, many hope that nuclear reactors will replace natural gas. That would take a lot of time. Kjell Aleklett estimates it would take at least 7 years before each candu nuclear reactor could be built, and the Canadian Parliament estimates it would take 20 nuclear reactors to replace natural gas as a fuel source.
  3. Mined oil sands have been estimated to have an energy returned on invested of EROI of 5.5–6 for mined tar sands (perhaps 10% of the 170 billion barrels), with in situ processing much lower at 3.5–4 (Brandt 2013).
  4. Counting on tar sands to replace declining conventional oil, with an EROI as high as 30 will be hard to accomplish if several EROI experts estimate that an EROI of 7 to 14  is required to maintain civilization as we know it (Lambert et al. 2014; Murphy 2011; Mearns 2008; Weissbach et al. 2013)

In a crash program to ramp up production as quickly as possible, production would likely peak in 2040 at 5–5.8 million barrels a day (Mb/d)  (NEB 2013; Soderbergh et al. 2007). Kjell Aleklett estimated that at best a megaproject could get 3.6 Mb/d by 2018.  Even that goal would require Canada to choose between exporting natural gas to the United States or burning most of its reserves in the tar sands to melt bitumen.

So far, Canadian oil sands have contributed to the 5.4 % increase in oil production since 2005, increasing from 0.974 to 2.1 Mb/d in 2014 (2.7 % of world oil production). There are about 170 billion barrels thought to be recoverable, equal to 6 years of world oil consumption.

Already, oil sand production forecasts for 2030 have declined 24 % over the past 3 years, from 5.2 Mb/d in 2013, to 4.8 Mb/d in 2014, to 3.95 Mb/d in June 2015 (CAPP 2015).

At least half the book describes the damage being done that is too long to write about in a book review, and one of the most horrifying accounts of wilderness destruction I’ve ever heard.  But because it’s not a major tourist destination in an area few live in, the expected out-cry of environmentalists is muted and almost non-existent. 

If it’s true that future generations are likely to move north as climate change renders vast areas uninhabitable, what a shame that an area the size of New York is well on the way to being such a toxic cesspool of polluted water, land, and radioactive uranium tailings that it may be uninhabitable for centuries if not millennia.   As author Nikiforuk puts it “Reclamation in the tar sands now amounts to little more than putting lipstick on a corpse.”

Much of this book covers the horrifying, sickening destruction of the ecology of a vast region.  You may think you will not be affected, but very close to major rivers, flimsy dams holding back large lakes of toxic sludge are bound to fail at some point and eventually spill out into the arcti. That would damage  the fragile arctic system and the fish you buy in the grocery store potentially unsafe to eat.

I have rearranged and paraphrased some of what follows, as well as quoted the original text.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

What is arguably the world’s last great oil rush is taking place today.  Alberta has approved nearly 100 mining and in situ projects. That makes the tar sands the largest energy project in the world, bar none.

The size of the resource being exploited has grown exponentially. The 54,000 square mile bitumen-producing zone contains nearly 175 billion barrels in proven reserves, which makes it the single-largest pile of hydrocarbons outside of Saudi Arabia.

Bitumen is what a desperate civilization mines after it’s depleted its cheap oil. It’s a bottom-of-the-barrel resource, a signal that business as usual in the oil patch has ended. To use a drug analogy, bitumen is the equivalent of scoring heroin cut with sugar, starch, powdered milk, quinine, and strychnine. Calling the world’s dirtiest hydrocarbon “oil” grossly diminishes the resource’s huge environmental footprint. It also distracts North Americans from two stark realities: we are running out of cheap oil, and seventeen million North Americans run their cars on an upgraded version of the smelly adhesive used by Babylonians to cement the Tower of Babel. That ancient megaproject did not end well. Without a disciplined plan for them, the tar sands won’t either.

David Hughes points out that in 1850, 90% of the world traveled by horse and heated with biomass. Now nearly 90% of the world depends on hydrocarbons and consumes 43 times as much energy with 7 times as many people as in 1850.  He questions whether that is really sustainable.  He’s pretty sure people will be upset in the future about squandering so much oil so quickly, since just one barrel of oil equals 8 years of human labor.

Walter Youngquist, author of one of the best books about the history of energy and natural resource use, “Geodestinies”, points out that the tar sands are a valuable long-term resource for Canada which should stretch out their production for as long as possible, as efficiently and sparingly as possible.

Tar sands are limited by natural gas

In 2006, the Oil & Gas Journal noted sadly that Canada had only enough remaining natural gas to recover 29% of the bitumen in the tar sands.

The North American Energy Working Group (NAEWG) reported similar findings that year at a meeting in Houston, Texas. If the tar sands produced five million barrels a day, the group said, oil companies would consume 60 per cent of the natural gas available in Western Canada by 2030. Even the NAEWG found that level of consumption “unsustainable and uneconomical.” As one Albertan recently observed: “Using natural gas to develop oil sands is like using caviar as fertilizer to grow turnips.

Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a highly conservative private energy consultancy, confirmed the cannibalistic character of natural gas consumption in its 2009 report on the tar sands. Incredibly, industrial development in the tar sands region now consumes 20% of Canadian demand. By 2035, the project could burn up between 25 and 40% of the total national demand, or 6.5 billion cubic feet a day. Such a scenario would drain most of the natural gas contained in the Arctic and Canada’s Mackenzie Delta, as well as Alaska’s North Slope. Armand Laferrère, the president and CEO of Avera Canada, estimates that the tar sands industry could commandeer the majority of Canada’s natural gas supply by 2030.

What are tar sands?

 Tar sands are a half-baked substance, a finite product of up to 300-million-year-old sun-baked algae, plankton, and other marine life, compressed, cooked, and degraded by bacteria.  Good cooking results in light oil. Bad cooking makes bitumen, which is so hydrogen poor that it takes energy-intensive upgrading to make marketable. Fifty per cent of Canada now depends on a half-baked fuel.

It’s a very dirty fuel.  Bitumen is 5% sulfur (about 8 times more than high-quality Texas oil), 0.5% nitrogen, 1,000 parts per million heavy metals such as nickel and vanadium, and also has salts, clays, and  resins.  This can sometimes lead to fouling and corrosion of equipment, causing energy inefficiencies and refinery shutdowns. Between 2003 and 2007, processing lower-quality oil from the tar sands increased energy consumption at U.S. refineries by 47%.

Miners and engineers generally don’t canoe on or fish in the ponds because of two really nasty pollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and naphthenic acids. Of 25 PAH s studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and there are hundreds), 14 are proven human carcinogens. The EPA found that many PAH s produce skin cancers in “practically all animal species tested.” Fish exposed to PAH s typically show “fin erosion, liver abnormalities, cataracts, and immune system impairments leading to increased susceptibility to disease.” Even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers recognizes that a “significant increase in processing of heavy oil and tar sands in Western Canada in recent years has led to the rising concerns on worker exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.” In 2003, the ubiquitous presence of PAH s in the tar ponds prompted entomologist Dr. Jan Ciborowski to make another one of those unbelievable tar sands calculations: he estimated that it would take 7 million years for the local midge and black fly populations to metabolize all of the industry’s cancer makers.

Naphthenic acids, which by weight compose 2% of bitumen deposits in the Athabasca region, are not much friendlier than pahs. Industry typically recovers these acids from oil to make wood preservatives or fungicides and flame retardants for textiles. The acids are also one of the key ingredients used in napalm bombs. Naphthenic acids kill fish and most aquatic life.

Upgrading requires so much fuel that this step adds 100 to 200 pounds of CO2 per barrel. This toxic, polluting, ultra-heavy hydrocarbon is a damned expensive substitute for light oil. The Canadian Industrial End-Use Energy Data and Analysis Centre concluded in 2008 that synthetic crude oil made from bitumen had “the highest combustion emission intensity” of five domestic petroleum products and was “the most energy intensive one to process” in Canada.

Bitumen looks like molasses and smells like asphalt, sticky as tar on a cold day. In fact, Canada’s National Centre for Upgrading Technology says that “raw bitumen contains over 50 per cent pitch” and can be used to cover roads.   Because of its stickiness, bitumen cannot move through a pipeline without being diluted by natural gas condensate or light oil.

Why Canadian bitumen should be called tar sands, not oil sands

tar-sand-bitumenIndustry executives  and many politicians hate the word tar sands.  Oil sands sounds much better, implying abundance, easy access, and much cleaner.  The world oil raises investment cash better than the word tar.  It’s more likely to make investors forget that extraction requires a huge amount of energy to mine and upgrade than oil drilling. The Alberta government says it’s okay to describe the resource as oil sands “because oil is what is finally derived from bitumen.” If that lazy reasoning made any sense, tomatoes would be called ketchup and trees called lumber.

Rick George, president and CEO of Suncor, unwittingly made a good argument for calling the stuff tar. Bitumen may contain a hydrocarbon, he said, but you can’t use it as a lubricant because “it contains minerals nearly as abrasive as diamonds.” You can’t pump it, because “it’s as hard as a hockey puck in its natural state.” It doesn’t burn all that well, either; “countless forest fires over the millennia have failed to ignite it.

In 1983, engineer Donald Towson made a good case for calling the resource tar, not oil, in the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. He argued that the word accurately captures the resource’s unorthodox makeup, which means it is “not recoverable in its natural state through a well by ordinary production methods.” Towson noted that bitumen not only has to be diluted with light oil to be pumped through a pipeline but requires a lot more processing than normal oil. (Light oil shortages are so chronic that industry imported 50,000 barrels by rail last year to the tar sands.) Even after being upgraded into “synthetic crude,” the product requires more pollution-rich refining before it can become jet fuel or gasoline.

Brute force extraction

Bitumen can’t be sucked out of the ground like Saudi Arabia’s black gold. It took an oddball combination of federal and provincial scientists and American entrepreneurs nearly seventy years from the time of Mair’s visit to the tar sands (and billions of Canadian tax dollars) to figure out how to separate bitumen from sand. They finally arrived at a novel solution: brute force.

Extracting bitumen from the forest floor is done in two earth-destroying ways. About 20% of the tar sands are shallow enough to be mined by 3-story-high, 400-ton Caterpillar trucks and $15-million Bucyrus electric shovels.

The open-pit mining operations look more hellish than an Appalachian coal field. To get just ONE barrel of bitumen:

  1. hundreds of trees must be cut
  2. acres of soil removed
  3. wetlands drained
  4. 4 tons of earth dug up to get 2 tons of bituminous sand
  5. boiling water poured over the sand to extract the oil

This costs about $100,000 per flowing barrel, making bitumen one of the planet’s most expensive fossil fuels.


  • Every other day, the open-pit mines move enough dirt and sand to fill Yankee Stadium  yankee-stadium-tar-sands-per-day-volume
  • Since 1967, one major mining company has moved enough earth (2 billion tons) to build seven Panama canals.

In-situ process

Most of the tar sands are so deep that the bitumen must be steamed or melted out of the ground, with the help of a bewildering array of pumps, pipes, and horizontal wells. Engineers call the process in situ (in place). The most popular in situ technology is Steam-Assisted gravity Drainage (SAGD). “Think of a big block of wax the size of a building, SAGD expert Neil Edmunds explains. “Then take a steam hose and tunnel your way in and melt all the wax above. It will drain to the bottom where it can be collected.

SAGD technology burns enough natural gas, for boiling water into steam, to heat six million North American homes every day. In fact, natural gas now accounts for more than 60% of the operating costs for a SAGD project. Using natural gas to melt a resource as dirty as bitumen is, as one executive said, like “burning a Picasso for heat.


  • In 2008, the Canadian federal government revealed that 1 joule of energy was needed to produce only 1.4 joules of energy as gasoline in the SAGD projects.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that an investment of one barrel of energy yields between four and five barrels of bitumen from the tar sands.
  • Some experts figure that the returns on energy invested may be as low as two or three barrels.

Compare that with oil –on average, it takes 1 barrel of oil (or energy equivalent), to pump out 20 to 60 barrels of cheap oil.

Bitumen’s low-energy returns and earth-destroying production methods explain why the unruly resource requires capital investments up to $126,000 per barrel of daily production and market prices of between $60 and $80. Given its impurities, bitumen often sells for half the price of West Texas crude.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s so expensive:

  • High wages: high-school grads earn more than $100,000 a year driving the world’s largest trucks (400-ton vehicles with the horsepower of a hundred pickup trucks) to move $10,000 worth of bitumen a load.
  • Land: Suncor had started to clear-cut an estimated 290,000 trees for its Steep Bank mine, and surveyors and contractors staked out new mine sites for Shell and Syncrude. Bitumen leases that had sold for $6 an acre in 1978 now sold for $120. (By 2006, companies would be paying $486 per acre.)
  • Equipment: The trucks dump the ore into a crusher, which spits the bitumen onto the world’s largest conveyor belt, about 1,600 yards long.
  • Processing: The bitumen is eventually mixed with expensive light oil and piped to an Edmonton refinery.
  • Shell’s boreal-forest-destroying enterprise required 995 miles of pipe and consumes enough power to light up a city of 136,000 people. It gobbled up enough steel cable to stretch from Calgary to Halifax and poured enough concrete to build thirty-four Calgary Towers. tar-sands-34-calgary-towers-cement-shell-mine
  • The price tag for an open-pit mine plus an upgrader has climbed from $25,000 to between $90,000 and $110,000 per flowing barrel over the last decade. Conventional oil requires, on average, $1,000 worth of infrastructure to remove a flowing barrel a day

The rising price of oil largely obscured these extravagant costs until prices crashed in 2008 and again in 2014.


tar-sand-water-pollutionBiologists and ecologists understood that the environmental consequences of digging up a forest in a river basin that contained 20% of Canada’s fresh water could be enormous. According to Larry Pratt’s lively account of Kahn’s presentation in his book The Tar Sands, one federal government official calculated that the megaproject would dump up to 20,000 tons of bitumen into the Athabasca River every day and destroy the entire Mackenzie basin all the way to Tuk-toyaktuk. Studies and reports completed in 1972 had warned that the construction of “multi-plant operations” would “turn the Fort McMurray area of northeastern Alberta into a disaster region resembling a lunar landscape” or a “biologically barren wasteland.

At a 50 per cent use of groundwater, SAGD generates formidable piles of toxic waste. Companies can’t make steam without first taking the salt and minerals out of brackish water. As a consequence, an average SAGD producer can generate 33 million pounds of salts and water-solvent carcinogens a year, which simply gets trucked to landfills. Because the waste could contaminate potable groundwater, industry calls its salt disposal problem “a perpetual care issue.  Insiders remain alarmed by industry’s rising salt budget. “There is no regulatory oversight of these landfills, and these problems will be enormously difficult to fix,” says one SAGD developer.

Arsenic, a potent cancer-maker, poses another challenge. Industry acknowledges that in situ production (the terrestrial equivalent of heating up the ocean) can warm groundwater and thereby liberate arsenic and other heavy metals from deep sediments. No one knows how much arsenic 78 approved SAGD projects will eventually mobilize into Alberta’s groundwater and from there into the Athabasca River.

Pollution from the tar sands has now created an acid rain problem in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. With much help from 150,000 tonnes of acid-making air-borne pollution from the tar sands and local upgraders, Alberta now produces 25% of Canada’s sulfur dioxide emissions and a third of its nitrogen oxide emissions.  12 per cent of forest soils in the Athabasca and Cold Lake regions are already acidifying. Rain as acidic as black coffee is now falling in the La Loche region just west of Fort McMurray.

Albertans are expected to believe that the world’s largest energy project can displace more than a million tons of boreal forest a day, industrialize a landscape mostly covered by wetlands, create fifty square miles of toxic-waste ponds, spew tons of acidic emissions, and drain as much water from the Athabasca River as that annually used by Toronto, all with no measurable impact on water quality or fish.

Tailings Ponds pollution

Astronauts can see the ponds from space, and politicians typically confuse them with lakes. Miners call the watery mess “tailings.” Industry prefers the term “oil sands process materials” (ospm). Call them what you like, there is no denying that the world’s biggest energy project has spawned one of the world’s most fantastic concentrations of toxic waste, producing enough sludge every day (400 million gallons) to fill 720 Olympic pools.

The ponds are truly a wonder of geotechnical engineering. Made from earth stripped off the top of open-pit mines, they rise an average of 270 feet above the forest floor like strange flat-topped pyramids. By now, the ponds hold more than 40 years of contaminated water, sand, and bitumen.

Amazingly, regulators have allowed industry to build nearly a dozen of them on either side of the Athabasca River. The river, as noted, feeds the Mackenzie River Basin, which carries a fifth of Canada’s fresh water to the Arctic Ocean. The basin ferries wastes from the tar sands to the Arctic too.

The ponds are a byproduct of bad design and industry’s profligate water abuse. Of the 12 barrels of water needed to make one barrel of bitumen, approximately three barrels become mudlike tailings. All in all, approximately 90% of the fresh water withdrawn from the Athabasca River ends up in settling ponds engineered by firms such as Klohn Crippen Berger and owned by the likes of Syncrude, Imperial, Shell, or CNRL. After separating bitumen from sand with hot water and caustic soda, industry pumps the leftover ketchup-like mess into the ponds.

Engineers originally thought that the clay and solids would quickly settle out from the water. But bitumen’s clay chemistry confounded their expectations, and the ponds have been stubbornly growing ever since. They now cover fifty square miles of forest and muskeg. That’s equivalent to the size of Staten Island, New York, or nearly 150 Lake Louises without the Rocky Mountain scenery—or 300 Love Canals. Within a decade, the ponds will cover an area of eighty-five square miles. Experts now say that it might take a thousand years for the clay in the dirty water to settle out.

Given a tailings cleanup cost of $2–3 per barrel of oil, the ponds represent a $10-billion liability.

Every year the ponds quietly swallow thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds as well as moose, deer, and beaver.  Industry has tried to keep bird killing to a minimum by using scarecrows affectionately called Bit-U-Men.

In 2003, the intergovernmental Mackenzie River Basin Board identified the tailings ponds as a singular hazard. The board noted that “an accident related to the failure of one of the oil sands tailings ponds could have a catastrophic impact on the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River Basin.” Such catastrophes have happened before. In 2000, a tailings pond operated by the Australian-Romanian company Aurul S.A. broke after a heavy rain in Baia Mare, Romania. The pond released enough cyanide-laced water to potentially kill one billion people,

Bruce Peachey of New Paradigm Engineering. “If any of those [tailings ponds] were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez,” adds the University of Alberta’s David Schindler. (The Valdez released about 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. PAH concentrations alone in the tar ponds represent about 3,000 Valdezes.)

McDonald was born on the river, and he had trapped, fished, farmed, and worked for the oil companies. He fondly remembered the 1930s and 1940s, when Syrian fur traders exchanged pots and pans for muskrat and beaver furs along the Athabasca River. Families lived off the land then and had feasts of rabbit. They netted jackfish, pickerel, and whitefish all winter long. “Everyone walked or paddled, and the people were healthy,” McDonald said. “No one travels that river anymore. There is nothing in that river. It’s polluted. Once you could dip your cup and have a nice cold drink from that river, and now you can’t.

McDonald had recently told his son not to have any more children: “They are going to suffer. They are going to have a tough time to breathe and will have nothing to drink.” He dismissed the talk of reclaiming waste ponds and open-pit mines as a white-skinned fairy tale. “There is no way in this world that you can put Mother Earth back like it was.

Like most residents of Fort Chipewyan, Ladouceur believes there is definitely something wrong with the water. He has a list of suspects. Abandoned uranium mines on the east end of the lake, for example, have been leaking for years. “God knows how much radium is in this lake,” he says. Then there are the pulp mills and, of course, the tar sands and tar ponds. Ladouceur says his cousin collected yellow scum from the river downstream from the mines and dried it, and “it caught on fire.” Almost everyone in Fort Chip has witnessed oil spills or leaks on the Athabasca River.

Little if any regulation allows the destruction to continue unabated

The Ottawan government concluded that a massive tar-sands mega-scheme could overheat the economy, create steel shortages, unsettle the labor market, drive up the value of the Canadian dollar, and generally change the nation beyond recognition. The tar sands would also be needed to meet future domestic energy needs. “I don’t know why we should feel any obligations to rush into such large-scale production [of tar sands], rather than leave it in the ground for future generations,” reasoned Donald Macdonald.

But since the 1990s the destruction Kahn predicted has gone mostly unobstructed, because the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), the province’s oil and gas regulator, has become a captive regulator, largely funded by industry and mostly directed by lawyers and engineers with ties to the oil patch.

On paper, the ERCB has a mandate to develop and regulate oil and gas production in the public interest and claims to have the world’s most stringent rules. But these “rules” have allowed the board to:

  • Approve oil wells in lakes and parks, permit sour-gas wells — as poisonous as cyanide —near schools, Endorse the carpet-bombing of the province’s most fertile farmland with thousands of coal-bed methane wells and transmission lines
  • Until recently, the board refused to report the names of oil and gas companies not in compliance with its regulations, citing security reasons.
  • The agency has only two mobile air monitors to investigate leaks from 244 sour-gas plants, 573 sweet-gas plants, 12,243 gas batteries, and about 250,000 miles of pipelines.
  • In 2006, the board approved more than 95% of the 60,000applications submitted by industry.
  • After hearing in 2006 that the construction of Suncor’s $7-billion Voyageur Project would draw down groundwater by 300 feet, overwhelm housing and health facilities, and result in air quality exceedances for sour gas, benzene, and particulate matter, the board agreed that the project would “further strain public infrastructure” but declared the impacts “acceptable.”
  • After the Albian Sands Muskeg River Mine Expansion proposed to dig up 31,000 acres of forest, destroy 170 acres of fish habitat along the Muskeg River, and withdraw enough water from the Athabasca River to fill 22,000 Olympic-sized pools a year, the board concluded in 2006 that the megaproject was “unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental effects.

Mountain-top coal removal versus Tar Sands destruction

Mountaintop removal and open-pit bitumen mining are classic forms of strip mining, with a few key differences. In mountaintop removal, the company first scrapes off the trees and soil. Next, it blasts up to 800 feet off the top of mountains (in West Virginia alone, industry goes through 3 million pounds of dynamite every day.) Massive earth movers, like those used in the tar sands, then push the rock, or “excess spoil,” into river valleys, a process industry calls “valley fill.” Finally, giant drag lines and shovels scoop out thin layers of coal.

In the tar sands, companies specialize in forest-top removal. First they clear-cut up to 200,000 trees, then drain all the bogs, fens, and wetlands. Unlike in Appalachia, companies don’t throw the soil and rock (what the industry calls “overburden”) into nearby rivers or streams. Instead, they use the stuff to construct walls for the tar ponds, the world’s largest impoundments of toxic waste.

As earth-destroying economies, mountaintop removal and bitumen mining have few peers in their role as water abusers.

The EPA published its damning findings in a series of studies, despite massive interference along the way by the coal-friendly administration of George W. Bush. In an area encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and parts of Tennessee, mountaintop removal smothered or damaged 1,200miles of headwater streams between 1985 and 2001, which bring life and energy to a forest. The studies were blunt: “Valley fills destroy stream habitats, alter stream chemistry, impact downstream transport of organic matter and . . . destroy stream habitats before adequate pre-mining assessment of biological communities has been conducted.” The EPA predicted that mountaintop removal would soon bury another 1,000 miles of headwater streams. Downstream pollution from the strip mines also contaminated rivers and streams with extreme amounts of selenium, sulfate, iron, and manganese. In addition, mountaintop removal dried up an average of 100water wells a day and dramatically polluted groundwater.  More than 450 mountains were destroyed during a six-year period, as well as 7% (370,000 acres) of the most diverse hardwood forest in North America.

The tar sands have already created a similar footprint in the Mackenzie River Basin, which protects and makes 20% of Canada’s fresh water. Throughout the southern half of the basin, bitumen mining destroys wetlands, drains entire watersheds, guzzles groundwater, and withdraws Olympic amounts of surface water from the Athabasca and Peace rivers. A large pulp mill industry struggles along in the wake of the oil patch, and a nascent nuclear industry threatens to become another water thief in the basin.

To date, no federal or provincial agency has done a cumulative impact study evaluating the industry’s footprint on boreal wetlands and rivers.

Bitumen is one of the most water-intensive hydrocarbons on the planet

If water shortages were to occur, both industry and government have limited courses of action—they can either reduce water consumption or build upstream, off-site storage for water taken from the Athasbasca during high spring flows.    Although industry and government have set goals of three million barrels a day by 2015, Peachey thinks water availability could well constrain such exuberance.

On average, the open-pit mines require 12 barrels of water to make 1 barrel of molasses-like bitumen. [Like tar sands, liquefied coal is often seen as a solution to oil decline, but liquid coal production is also highly limited by water which requires 6 to 15 tons of water per ton of coal-to-liquids(CTL).]

Most of the tar-sands water is needed for a hot-water process (similar to that of a giant washing machine) that separates the hydrocarbons from sand and clay.

Some companies recycle their water as many as 18 times, so every barrel of bitumen consumes a net average of 3 barrels of potable water. Given that the industry produces 1 million barrels of bitumen a day, the tar sands industry virtually exports 3 million barrels of water from the Athabasca River daily.

The industry will need more water as it processes increasingly dirtier bitumen deposits, because now the best ores are being mined.  In the future the clay content will increase, requiring ever larger volumes of water.

City-sized open-pit mines will soon be eclipsed by another water hog in the tar sands: in situ production. About 80% of all bitumen deposits lie so deep under the forest that industry must melt them into black syrup with technologies such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Twenty-five SAGD projects worth nearly $80 billion could produce 4 million barrels of bitumen a day by 2020 and easily surpass mine production. But as Robert Watson, president of Giant Grosmont Petroleum Ltd., warned in 2003 at a regulatory hearing: “David Suzuki is going to have problems with SAGD. Alberta natural gas consumers are going to have problems with SAGD . . . SAGD is not sustainable”.  Land leased for SAGD production now covers an area the size of Vancouver Island, which means in situ drilling will threaten water resources over an area 50 times greater than that affected by the mines. SAGD is not benign: it generally industrializes the land and its hydrology with a massive network of well pads, pipelines, seismic lines, and thousands of miles of roads.

Although industry spin doctors calculate that it takes about one barrel of raw water (most from deep salty aquifers) to produce 4 barrels of bitumen, most SAGD engineers admit to much higher water-to-bitumen ratios. Actually, SAGD could be removing as much water from underground aquifers as the mines are withdrawing from the Athabasca River within a decade.

Moreover, SAGD’s water thirst appears to be expanding. Industry used to think that it only needed 2 barrels’ worth of steam to melt 1 barrel of bitumen out of deep formations, but the reservoirs have proved uncooperative. Opti-Nexen’s multibillion-dollar Long Lake Project south of Fort McMurray, for example, originally predicted an average steam-oil ratio of 2.4. But Nexen now forecasts a 35% increase in steam (a 3.3 ratio). Most SAGD projects have increased their steam ratios to greater than 3 barrels, with a few projects already as high as 7 or 8.

“A lot of projects may prove uneconomic in their second or third phases because it takes too much steam to recover the oil,” explains one Calgary-based SAGD developer.

High-pressure steam injection into bitumen formations can cause micro earthquakes and heave the surface of land by up to eight inches. Steam stress can also fracture overlying rock, allowing steam to escape into groundwater or the empty chambers of old SAGD operations. (The steam stress problem is so dramatic, says one engineer, that all forecasts of SAGD potential production are probably grossly exaggerated.) Both Imperial Oil and Total have experienced spectacular SAGD failures that left millions of dollars of equipment soaking in mud bogs.

The dramatic loss in steam efficiency for deep bitumen deposits means companies have to drain more aquifers to boil more water. To boil more water, the companies have to use more natural gas (the industry currently burns enough gas every day to keep the population of Colorado warm), which in turn means more greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, SAGD could consume 40% of Canadian demand by 2035.

SAGD’S frightful natural gas addiction is now driving shallow drilling as well as coal-bed methane developments on prime agricultural land throughout central Alberta. (Coal-bed methane is the tar sands of natural gas: it requires more wells and more land disturbance than conventional gas and poses a huge threat to groundwater, which often moves along coal seams.) The quick removal of natural gas from underground pools and coal deposits creates a void that could, over time, fill up with either water or migrating gas. Nobody really knows at the moment how many old gas pools connect with water aquifers or how many are filling up with water. Bruce Peachey estimates that natural gas drilling could result in the eventual disappearance of 350 to 530 billion cubic feet of water in arid central Alberta.

Due to spectacular growth in SAGD (nearly $4 billion worth of construction a year until 2015), Alberta Environment can no longer accurately predict industry’s water needs. The Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based energy watchdog, reported that the use of fresh water for SAGD in 2004 increased three times faster than the government forecast of 110 million cubic feet a year. Government has made a conscious effort to get SAGD operations to switch to using salty groundwater. However, since it costs more to desalinate the water and creates a salt disposal problem, SAGD could be still be drawing more than 50 per cent of its volume from freshwater sources by 2015.

The biggest issue for SAGD production may be changes in the water table over time. “If you take out a barrel of oil from underground, it will be replaced with a barrel of water from somewhere,” explains Bruce Peachey. The same rule applies to natural gas. Peachey figures that if all the depleted gas pools near the tar sands were to refill with water, the water debt could amount to half the Athabasca River’s annual flow. This vacuum effect may also explain why the most heavily drilled energy states in the United States are experiencing the most critical water shortages.

Brad Stelfox, a prominent land-use ecologist who works for both industry and government, notes that a century ago all water in Alberta was drinkable. “Three generations later all water is non-potable and must be chemically treated,” he points out. “Is that sustainable?

Tar sands will also destroy  Saskatchewan province

By 2020, three provincial pipelines from Fort McMurray will ferry three million barrels of raw bitumen a day to Upgrader Alley, and in so doing transform the counties of Strathcona, Sturgeon, and Lamont and the City of Fort Saskatchewan into a “world class energy hub.” Just about every company with a mine or SAGD project in Fort McMurray, from Total to Statoil, has joined the rush to build nearly $45 billion worth of upgraders, refineries, and gasification plants. The colossal development will not only industrialize a 180-square-mile piece of prime farmland straddling the North Saskatchewan River (an area half the size of Edmonton) but consume the same amount of water as one million Edmontonians.

A landscape that once supported potato and dairy farms will soon be dotted with supersized industrial bitumen factories exporting synthetic crude and jet fuel to Asia and the United States.

Bitumen upgraders are among the world’s most proficient air polluters because, as the 2006 Alberta’s Heavy Oil and Oil Sands guidebook notes, they are “all about turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” Removing impurities from bitumen or adding hydrogen requires dramatic feats of engineering that produce two to three times more nitrogen dioxides (a smog maker), sulfur dioxide (an acid-rain promoter), volatile organic compounds (an ozone developer), and particulate matter (a lung and heart killer) than the refining of conventional oil.

From the government’s point of view, a multibillion-dollar upgrader is much more appealing than a farm. A typical midsized upgrader, for example, can pipe $450 million worth of taxes into federal and provincial coffers every year for twenty-five years. The construction of half a dozen upgraders can employ twenty thousand people for a decade and keep the economy growing like an algae bloom.

Relative to conventional crude, bitumen typically sells at such a heavy discount that U.S. refineries equipped to handle the product can turn over incredible profits. “The lost profits and lost opportunities are simply too large to ignore,” concluded Dusseault. But the Alberta government did ignore them, and by 2007 bitumen’s lower price differential amounted to a loss of $2 billion a year. Money is lost whenever raw bitumen is exported.

The oil patch is the second-highest water user in the North Saskatchewan River basin (using 18% of water withdrawals). The upgrader boom will make the petroleum sector number one. A 2007 report for the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance says that “nearly all of the projected increase in surface water use will be in the petroleum sector.” By 2015, the upgraders’ demands on river water will increase by 278%; by 2025, 339%. John Thompson, author of the report, says the absence of an authoritative study on the river’s ecosystem, an Alberta trademark, leaves a big hole. “We don’t know what it takes to maintain the river’s health.” Providing energy for the upgraders will also take a toll on water. Sherritt International and its investment partner, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, are proposing to strip-mine a 120-square-mile area just east of Upgrader Alley for coal.

Gasification plants would render the coal into synthetic gas and hydrogen to help power the upgraders. Current estimates suggest that the project will consume somewhere between 70 million and 317 million cubic feet of water from the North Saskatchewan annually. Strip-mining farmland will also “affect groundwater aquifers and surface water hydrology.

Enbridge, the largest transporter of crude to the U.S., also wants to open the floodgates to Asia with a proposed $5-billion global superhighway, the Northern Gateway Project. Now backed by ten anonymous investors, the project would ferry 525,000 barrels of dilbit (diluted bitumen) from Edmonton to the deep-water port of Kitimat, B.C., to help put more cars on the road in Shanghai. Paul Michael Wih-bey, a tar sands promoter, describes the pipeline as part of a grand “China-Alberta-U.S. Nexus” and “ a new global market order based on secure supplies of reasonably priced heavy oils.” The dual 700-mile-long pipeline would also import 200,000 barrels of condensate or diluent from Russia or Malaysia to help lubricate the export line. Enbridge calls the Northern Gateway Project “an important part of Canada’s energy future,” and the company has hired a former local mla and cbc journalist to talk up the project in rural communities. Given that the megaproject would cross 1,000 streams and rivers that now protect some of the world’s last remaining salmon fisheries, it was received coldly in many quarters.

Given that NAFTA rules force Canada to maintain a proportional export to the United States (Mexico wisely rejected the proportionality clause on energy exports), these three new pipelines will undermine our nation’s energy security. In the event of an international energy emergency, the pipelines guarantee that the United States will get the greatest share of Canadian oil. “It hasn’t dawned on most Canadians that their government has signed away their right to have first access to their own energy supplies,” says Gordon Laxer, director of the Parkland Institute.

The export of bitumen to retrofitted U.S. refineries will dirty waterways, air sheds, and local communities. About 70% of current refinery expansion proposed in the United States (a total of 17 renovations and five new refineries) is dedicated to bitumen from the tar sands. Companies such as BP, Marathon, Shell, and ConocoPhillips have announced plans to expand and refit nearly half a dozen older refineries in the Great Lakes region to process bitumen.

On the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, refineries are expanding in Sarnia’s notorious Chemical Valley. The area already boasts more than 65 petrochemical facilities, including a Suncor refinery that has been upgrading bitumen for 55 years. Shell wants to add a bitumen upgrader to the mix, and Suncor just completed a billion-dollar addition to handle more dirty oil. The region currently suffers from some of the worst air pollution in Canada. Industrial waste from Chemical Valley has feminized male snapping turtles in the St. Clair River, turned 45% of the whitefish in Lake St. Clair “intersexual,” and exposed 2,000 members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to a daily cocktail of 105 carcinogens and gender-benders. Newborn girls outnumber boys by two to one on the reserve. Two-thirds of the children have asthma, and 40% of pregnant women experience miscarriages. Calls for a thorough federal investigation have gone unheeded.

The marketplace and quislinglike regulators are directing our country’s insecure economic future without a vote or even so much as a polite conversation over coffee. Canadians can now choose between two nightmares: an air-fouling, river-drinking economy that upgrades the world’s dirtiest hydrocarbon on prime farmland or a traditional staples economy that exports cheap bitumen and thousands of jobs to polluting refineries in China, the Gulf Coast, and the Great Lakes while making Eastern Canada ever more dependent on the uncertain supply of foreign oil. There is currently no plan C.

The rapid development  of the tar sands has made climate change a joke about Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. Everybody thinks reducing carbon dioxide emissions needs to be done and expects Somebody will do it. Anybody could have reduced emissions, but Nobody did. Everybody now blames Somebody, when in fact Nobody asked Anybody to do anything in the first place.

In meetings and in its proposed rules for geologic storage, the EPA has strongly recommended that government map out the current state of groundwater and soil near potential storage sites. Once CO2 begins to be injected at carefully chosen sites, the EPA has proposed that regulators track CO2 plumes in salt water, monitor local aquifers above and beyond the storage site to assure protection of drinking water, and sample the air over the site for traces of leaking CO2. And this isn’t something to be done over twenty or fifty years—the EPA believes this oversight needs to be maintained for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Just how likely is leakage? If Florida’s experience with the deep injection of wastewater is any indication, there will be leakage, and lots of it. Since the 1980s, 62 Florida facilities have been pumping three gigatons—0.7 cubic miles—of dirty water full of nitrate and ammonia into underground saltwater caves, some 2,953 feet deep, every year to keep the ocean clean. During the 1990s, the wastewater migrated into at least three freshwater zones, contaminating drinking water, though the EPA didn’t acknowledge the scale of the problem until 2003. David Keith, who has studied the Florida problem, says surprises will occur with carbon capture; regulations must adapt and be based on results from a dozen large-scale pilot projects. Absolutely prohibiting CO2 leakage would be a mistake, he says, since “it seems unlikely that large-scale injection of CO2 can proceed without at least some leakage.” Keith suspects the risks to groundwater will be

Other scientists, such as a group at the U.S. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, suspect keeping CO2 out of groundwater will be more difficult than managing liquid waste in Florida. They say CO2 injection involves more complex hydrologic processes than storing liquid waste, and it could even force salt water into freshwater sources. The group, now studying CCS and groundwater, says scientists don’t have a good idea of how CCS could change the pressure at the groundwater table level, impact discharge and recharge zones, and affect drinking water.

Nuclear power and tar sands

In 1956, Manley Natland had the kind of energy fantasy that the tar sands invite with predictable regularity. As the Richfield Oil Company of California geologist sat in a Saudi Arabian desert watching the sun go down, it occurred to him that a 9-kiloton nuclear bomb could release the equivalent of a small, fiery sun in the stubborn Alberta tar sands deposits. Detonating the bomb underground would make a massive hole into which boiled bitumen would flow like warmed corn syrup. “The tremendous heat and shock energy released by an underground nuclear explosion would be distributed so as to raise the temperature of a large quantity of oil and reduce its viscosity sufficiently to permit its recovery by conventional oil field methods,” Natland later wrote. He thought that the collapsing earth might seal up the radiation, and the bitumen could provide the United States with a secure supply of oil for years to come. Two years after his desert vision, Natland and other Richfield Oil representatives, the Alberta government, and the United States Atomic Energy Commission held excited talks about Project Cauldron, which planners later renamed Project Oil Sands. Natland selected a bomb site sixty-four miles south of Fort McMurray, and the U.S. government generously agreed to supply a bomb. Richfield acquired the lease site. Alberta politicians celebrated the idea of rapid and easy tar sands development, and the Canadian government set up a technical committee. Popular Mechanics magazine enthused about “using nukes to extract oil.

Edward Teller, the nuclear physicist and hawkish father of the hydrogen bomb, championed Natland’s vision. In an era when nuclear proponents got giddy about nuclear-powered cars, Teller regarded Project Cauldron as another opportunity to hammer the threat of nuclear swords into peaceful ploughs. “Using the nuclear car to move the fossil horse” was a promising idea, the bomb maker wrote. Chance, however, intervened. Canadian Prime Minister John D. Diefenbaker didn’t relish the idea of nuclear proliferation, or of the United States meddling in the Athabasca tar sands. The Soviets had experimented with nuking oil deposits only to learn that there was no market for radioactive oil. The promise of cheaper conventional sources in Alaska also lured Richfield Oil away from Project Cauldron. The moment passed for Natland. But the idea of using a nuclear car to fuel a hydrocarbon horse never really died, and these days some new scheme to run the tar sands on nuclear power emerges weekly with great fanfare. The CEO of Husky Energy, John Lau, seems interested, and Gary Lunn, the federal minister of natural resources, says he’s “very keen,” adding that it’s a matter of “when and not if.” Roland Priddle, former director of the National Energy Board and the Energy Council of Canada’s 2006 Energy Person of the Year, speaks enthusiastically about the synthesis “of nuclear and oil sands energy,” as does Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Bruce Power, an Ontario-based company, has proposed four reactors at a cost of $12 billion for tar sands production in Peace River country. France’s nuclear giant Avera wants to build a couple of nukes in the tar sands too. Saskatchewan, an Alberta wannabe, has proposed two nuclear facilities: one near the tar sands and one on Lake Diefenbaker. Employees of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (aecl), a federal Crown corporation that designs and markets candu reactors, told a Japanese audience in 2007 that “nuclear plants provide a sustainable solution for oil sands industry energy requirements, and do not produce ghg emissions.” If realized, these latest

In sunny Alberta, nukes for oil are being celebrated these days as some sort of magic bullet for carbon pollution as well as for rapid depletion of natural gas supplies. Natural gas now fuels rapid bitumen production, and it takes approximately 1,400 cubic feet of natural gas to produce and upgrade a barrel, equal to nearly a third of the barrel’s energy content. The tar sands are easily Canada’s biggest natural gas customer. They burn the blue flame to generate electricity to run equipment and facilities, they convert it as a source of hydrogen for upgrading, and they use it to heat water. SAGD operations, which need anywhere from two to four barrels of steam to melt deep bitumen deposits, are super-sized natural gas consumers. Thanks to the unexpectedly low quality of many bitumen deposits, SAGD requires more steam and therefore more natural gas every year.

Nuclear plants overheat without regular baths of cool water. (This explains why current proposals have placed nuclear reactors on the Peace River, one of Alberta’s longest rivers, or Lake Diefenbaker, the source of 40 per cent of the water for Saskatchewan.) The Darlington and Pickering facilities in Ontario require approximately two trillion gallons of water for cooling a year, about nineteen times more water than the tar sands use. In fact, water has become an Achilles heel for the nuclear industry. Recent heat waves in Europe and the United States either dried up water supplies or forced nuclear plants to discharge heated wastewater into shallow rivers, killing all the fish.

How tar sands corrupt democracy

  • When revenue comes from oil, citizens pay lower taxes, and all the government has to do is approve more tar sands projects, regardless of the harm they will do to the environment
  • Without taxation, people don’t pay much attention to how it’s spent, ask questions, or vote.
  • In turn, oil revenue driven governments are less likely to listen to voters, and better able to buy votes and influence people, enrich their friends and family
  • These oil-corrupted government leaders then use some of the money to discourage thought, debate, or dissent. For example, the Alberta government spends $14 million a year on 117 employees to tell Albertans what to think, and another $25 milloin in convincing Alberta’s citizens and U.S. oil consumers that tar sands are quite green and not as nasty as some have portrayed.
  • In Mexico and Indonesia, oil funds have propped up one party rule, used the money to buy guns, tanks and other means of putting rebellions down.

[ Canadians above all should really read this book, because they’re being robbed now and for millennia in the future of the financial gains and a stretched-out, longer use of this energy for their own nation.  The tar sands are open to anyone to exploit.  This is because most people who work in the oil industry know that peak oil is real and the tar sands are the last place on earth where oil companies can make an investment and grow production. ]

“In the big picture, deepwater oil and the oilsands are the only game left in town.  You know you are at the bottom of the ninth when you have to schlep a ton of sand to get a barrel of oil,” notes CIBC chief economist Jeffrey Rubin.


Mair didn’t see the grand and impossible future of Canada until the steamer docked at Fort McMurray, a “tumble-down cabin and trading-store.” That’s where he encountered the impressive tar sands, what Alexander Mackenzie had described as “bituminous fountains” in 1778 and what federal botanist John Macoun almost a century later called “the ooze.” Federal surveyor Robert Bell described an “enormous quantity of asphalt or thickened petroleum” in 1882. Mair called the tar sands simply “the most interesting region in all the North.” The tar was everywhere. It leached from cliffs and broke through the forest floor. Mair observed giant clay escarpments “streaked with oozing tar” and smelling “like an old ship.” Wherever he scraped the bank of the river, it slowly filled with “tar mingled with sand.” The Cree told him that they boiled the stuff to gum and repair canoes. One night Mair’s party burned the tar like coal in a campfire.

Against all economic odds, visionary J. Howard Pew, then the president of Sun Oil and the seventh-richest man in the United States, had built a mine and an upgrader (now Suncor) on the banks of the Athabasca River in 1967. Pew’s folly, then the largest private development ever built in Canada, would lose money for twenty years by producing the world’s most expensive oil at more than $30 a barrel.

But Pew reasoned that “no nation can long be secure in this atomic age unless it be amply supplied with petroleum.” Given the inevitable depletion of cheap oil, he recognized that the future of North America’s energy supplies lay in expensive bitumen.

Project Independence, the title given to U.S. government energy policy in the early 1970s. The policy stated that “there is an advantage to moving early and rapidly to develop tar sands production” because it “would contribute to the availability of secure North American oil supplies.

Mining Canada’s forest for bitumen would give the United States some time to figure out how to economically exploit its own dirty oil in places such as Colorado’s oil shales and Utah’s tar sands.

Given the current energy crisis and OPEC’s reluctance to boost oil production, Kahn hailed the bituminous sands of northern Alberta as a global godsend. He then presented a tar sands crash-development program to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Energy Minister Donald Macdonald.

Like everything about Kahn, his rapid development scheme was big and bold. (A crash program, said Kahn, was really “overnight go-ahead decision making.”) This one called for the construction of 20 gigantic open-pit mines with upgraders on the scale of Syncrude, soon to be one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. The futurist calculated that the tar sands could eventually pump out 2 to 3 million barrels of oil a day, all for export. Canada wouldn’t have to spend a dime, either. A global consortium formed by the governments of Japan, the United States, and some European countries would put up the cash: a cool $20 billion. Korea would provide 30 to 40,000 temporary workers, who would pay dues and contribute to pension plans to keep the local unions happy. Kahn pointed out that Canada would receive ample benefits: the full development of an under-exploited resource, high revenues, a refining industry, a secure market, and lots of international trade. The audacity of the vision stunned journalist Clair Balfour at the Financial Post, who wrote, “It would be as though the 10,000 square miles of oil sands were declared international territory, for the international benefit of virtually every nation but Canada.

In the late 1990s, development exploded abruptly with the force of a spring flood on the Athabasca River. The region’s fame spread to France, China, South Korea, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Norway. Everyone wanted a piece of the magic sand-pile. The Alberta government, with its Saudi-like ambitions, promised that the tar sands would be “a significant source of secure energy” in a world addicted to oil. But since then, greed and moral carelessness have turned the wonder of Canada’s Great Reserve to dread.

Tar sand investments now total nearly $200 billion. That hard-to-imagine sum easily makes the tar sands the world’s largest capital project. The money comes from around the globe, including France, Norway, China, Japan, and the Middle East. But approximately 60% of the cash hails from south of the border. An itinerant army of bush workers from China, Mexico, Hungary, India, Romania, and Atlantic Canada, among other places, is now digging away.

The Alberta tar sands are a global concern. The Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (taqa), an expert in low-cost conventional oil production, bought a $2-billion chunk of bitumen real estate just to be closer to the world’s largest oil consumer, the United States. South Korea’s national oil company owns a piece of the resource, as does Norway’s giant national oil company, Statoil, which just invested $2 billion. Total, the world’s fourth-largest integrated oil and gas company, with operations in more than 130 countries, plans to steam out two billion barrels of bitumen. Shell, the global oil baron, lists the Athabasca Oil Sands Project as its number-one global enterprise and plans to produce nearly a million barrels of oil a day — more oil than is produced daily in all of Texas. Synenco Energy, a subsidiary of Sinopec, the Chinese national oil company, says it will assemble a modular tar sands plant in China, Korea, and Malaysia, then float the whole show down the Mackenzie River. Japan Canada Oil Sands Limited has put up money.

Over 50,000 temporary foreign workers have poured into Alberta to feed the bitumen boom.  Abuse of these guest workers is so widespread that the Alberta government handled 800 complaints in just one three-month period in 2008.

With just 5% of the world’s population, the United States now burns up 20.6 million barrels of oil a day, or 25% of the world’s oil supply. Thanks to bad planning and an aversion to conservation, the empire must import two-thirds of its liquid fuels from foreign suppliers, often hostile ones. “The reality is that at least one supertanker must arrive at a U.S. port every four hours,” notes Swedish energy expert Kjell Aleklett. “Any interruption in this pattern is a threat to the American economy.” This crippling addiction has increasingly become an unsustainable wealth drainer. In 2000, the United States imported $200 billion worth of oil, thereby enriching many of the powers that seek to undermine the country. By 2008, it was paying out a record $440 billion annually for its oil.

The undeclared crash program in the tar sands has transformed Canada’s role in the strategic universe of oil. By 1999, the megaproject had made Canada the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. By 2002, Canada had officially replaced Saudi Arabia and Mexico as America’s number-one oil source, an event of revolutionary significance. Canada currently accounts for 20% of U.S. oil imports (that’s 12% of American consumption), and the continuing development of the tar sands will double those figures. Incredibly, only two in ten Americans and three in ten Canadians can accurately identify the country that now keeps the U.S. economy tanked up.

The rapid development of the Alberta tar sands has also served as a dirty-oil laboratory. Utah has 60 billion barrels of tar sands that are deeper and thinner, and therefore uglier, than Alberta’s resource. To date, appalling costs and extreme water issues have kept Americans from ripping up 2.4 million acres of western landscape. But that may soon change. Republican Utah Senator Orrin G. Hatch said that ”U.S. companies active in the tar sands are only waiting for the U.S. government to adopt a policy similar to Alberta’s which promotes rather than bars the development of the unconventional resources”.

In 2006, a three-volume report by the Strategic Unconventional Fuels Task Force to the U.S. Congress gushed that Alberta’s rapid development approach to “stimulate private investment, streamline permitting processes and accelerate sustainable development of the resource” was one that should be “adapted to stimulate domestic oil sands.” Even with debased fiscal and environmental rules, though, the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory has calculated that it would take 13 years and a massively expensive crash program to coax 2.4 million barrels a day out of the U.S. tar sands. A 2008 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service concluded that letting Canada do all the dirty work in the tar sands made more sense than destroying watersheds in the U.S. Southwest: “In light of the environmental and social problems associated with oil sands development, e.g., water requirements, toxic tailings, carbon dioxide emissions, and skilled labor shortages, and given the fact that Canada has 175 billion barrels of reserves . . . the smaller U.S. oil sands base may not be a very attractive investment in the near-term.

In 2009, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan think tank that informs public policy south of the border, critically examined the tar sands opportunity. The council’s report, entitled “Canadian Oil Sands,” found that the project delivered “energy security benefits and climate change damages, but that both are limited.” Natural gas availability, water scarcity, and “public opposition due to local social and environmental impacts” could clog the bitumen pipeline, the report said.

Criminal Intelligence Service Alberta, a government agency that shares intelligence with police forces, reported in 2004 that the boom had created fantastic opportunities for the Hell’s Angels, the Indian Posse, and other entrepreneurial drug dealers: “With a young vibrant citizen base and net incomes almost double the national average, Fort McMurray represents a tremendous market for illegal substances.” By some estimates, as much as $7 million worth of cocaine now travels up Highway 63 every week on transport trucks. According to the Economist, a journal devoted to studying global growth, about “40 per cent of the [tar sands] workers test positive for cocaine or marijuana in job screening and post accident tests.” Health food stores can’t keep enough urine cleanse products in stock for workers worried about random drug trials. There is even a black market in clean urine.

After years of denial and delays, the Alberta Cancer Board announced in May 2008 that it would conduct a comprehensive review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. The peer-reviewed report, released in 2009, completely vindicated O’Connor and the people of Fort Chipewyan. The study found that the northern community had a 30 per cent higher cancer rate than models would predict and a “higher than expected” rate of cases of cancers of the blood, lymphatic system, and soft tissue.

Many of the companies digging up wetlands along the Athabasca River, such as Exxon (part of the Syncrude consortium) and Shell, have already left an expensive legacy in Louisiana. Like Alberta, the bayou state has been a petro-state for years, producing 30 per cent of the domestic crude oil in the United States. For more than three decades, the state’s oil industry compromised coastal marshes and wetlands with ten thousand miles of navigational canals and thirty-five thousand miles of pipelines. These industrial channels, carved into swamps, invited salt water inland, which in turn killed the trees and grasses that kept the marshes intact. The U.S. Geological Survey suspects that the sucking of oil from the ground has also abetted the erosion. Since the 1930s, nearly one-fifth of the state’s precious delta has disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the loss of coastal wetlands now threatens the security of the industry that helped to destroy them. Without the protective buffer of wetlands, wells, pipelines, refineries, and platforms are more vulnerable to storms and hurricanes.  Federal scientists now lament that the state loses a wetland the size of a football field every 38 minutes.

The government’s own records show that it has knowingly permitted the province’s reclamation liability to rocket from $6 billion in 2003 to $18 billion in 2008. If not addressed, the public cost of cleanup could eventually consume more than two decades’ worth of royalties from the tar sands. The ERCB holds but $35 million in security deposits for $18-billion worth of abandoned oil field detritus.

Quotes from the book:

  • “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Henry Kissinger, U.S. National security advisor, 1970
  • Vaclav Smil, Canada’s eminent energy economist says that the main problem is unbridled energy consumption and points out that “All economies are just subsystems of the biosphere and the first law of ecology is that no trees grow to heaven. If we don’t reduce our energy use, the biosphere may do the scaling down for us in a catastrophic manner”.
  • “I do not think there is any use trying to make out that the tar sands are other than a ‘second line of defense’ against dwindling oil supplies.” Karl A. Clark, research engineer, letter to Ottawa, 1947.  


Brandt A.R., et al. 2013. The energy efficiency of oil sands extraction: Energy return ratios from 1970 to 2010. Energy.

CAPP. 2015. Canadian crude oil production forecast 2014–2030. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Lambert, J G., C.A.S. Hall, et al. 2014. Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy 64:153–167.

Mearns, E. 2008. The global energy crisis and its role in the pending collapse of the global economy. Presentation to the Royal Society of Chemists, Aberdeen, Scotland. See http://www.

Murphy, D.J., C. Hall, M. Dale, and C. Cleveland. 2011. Order from chaos: a preliminary protocol for determining the EROI of fuels. Sustainability 3(10):1888–1907.

NEB. 2013. Canada’s energy future, energy supply and demand to 2035. Government of Canada National Energy Board.

Soderbergh, B., et al. 2007. A crash programme scenario for the Canadian oil sands industry. Energy Policy 35.

Weissbach, D., G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Czerski, S. Gottlieb, and A. Hussein. 2013. Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Energy 52:1, 210–221.










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Republicans Brains are wired to deny science & reality

[ This is my book review of Chris Mooney’s 2012 “The Republican Brain. The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality”.

After my review is the first chapter of Mooney’s book, and after that my thoughts about Democratic versus Republican brains — do they exist?  How did they manifest themselves for most of human history when we were in egalitarian tribes, and after that in agricultural societies with brutal authoritarian leaders who often claimed to be Gods? ]

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

We are all susceptible to over 250 cognitive biases, fallacies, and errors, regardless of what political party we belong to. It seems every week a new book comes out about why we can’t see reality and make dumb choices.

I’ve read several such books lately.  Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is a good introduction to this research.  Kahneman shows that the basis of our cognitive biases is due to how our minds work. It begins with the lightning fast like/dislike reactions of our primitive emotional brain (system 1).  It’s up to the newer parts of our brain to interpret these basic emotional reactions (system 2).  But system 2 is slow and can only focus on a few things, so we usually succumb to the primitive biases of system 1 without even realizing it.

Chris Mooney’s book also sees our emotional brains as a big part of how we see the world, and of why we become a Democrat or Republican.

When an emotion bubbles up from our subconscious brain, we rationalize, not reason.  Or as Mooney puts it, “we’re not scientists, we’re lawyers trying to ‘win the case’, especially if we’re emotionally committed to an idea”.   We start to become little lawyers when we develop motivated reasoning around the age four or five.  That’s when we start siding with the groups we belong to — our family, friends, neighbors, church, and political party.

I doubt many Republicans are going to read this book, but they ought to. Mooney is thoughtful and insightful. Compare his evidence-based book with the Republican counterpart, Ann Coulter’s “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republican”.  Some chapter titles:

  • Teddy Kennedy: apparently fat, drunk, and stupid is a way to go through life
  • Liberal “argument”: hissing, scratching, and hair-pulling,
  • Liberalism and other psychological disorders
  • Liberal tactics: distortion, dissembling, deception—and the rest is just run-of-the-mill treason
  • Baby-killing: Abort liberals, not children
  • Blacks: the only thing standing between the democrat party and oblivion
  • Christians: must Reproduce More
  • Communism: a new fragrance by Hillary Clinton
  • Environmentalism: Adolf Hitler was the first environmentalist
  • Evolution, Alchemy, and other “settled” scientific theories

Some good news: not everyone is equally biased.  Many of us are capable of listening to others and changing our views.  But this varies a lot from person to person, because people differ in their need to defend their point of view, in their need to have convictions that must not change, in their need to believe their group is right, and in their need for unity with their group.  If you’re wired and strongly motivated to have unwavering convictions, it will be harder for you to change your mind with facts, logic, or reason than most people.

Mooney makes the case in his book that this kind of person has a conservative mind, and is therefore likely to be a Republican.

It reminds me of the time a co-worker who knew I loved science stopped by my office, and we somehow got on the topic of religion.  Bill said he loved religion because the Bible never changed, so you always know what to think, it was written in stone.  He asked me how I could stand science, because it kept changing based on the latest evidence.

Mooney likens someone with a strongly held opinion that’s being challenged to experiencing a physical attack when hearing an opposing opinion, because his beliefs are physically embedded in the brain.  That means you can’t expect to come up with undeniable, irrefutable facts and suddenly change his mind, since a strongly held belief is literally wired in their brain, and conservative brains are especially likely to believe even more strongly in a false belief afterwards.  This is known as the backfire effect (wiki definition):

The backfire effect occurs when, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger. The effect has been demonstrated experimentally in psychological tests, where subjects are given data that either reinforces or goes against their existing biases – and in most cases people can be shown to increase their confidence in their prior position regardless of the evidence they were faced with.

Linguist George Lakoff, at the University of California, Berkeley, says that to think you can change someone’s beliefs with well-reasoned arguments is not only naïve, it’s unwise and ineffective.

Reasoning is emotional, what psychologists call hot reasoning. We are not coldly rational.  Not even scientists are immune.  But what makes science the most successful way we have of testing reality is the scientific method, since peer review, experimental replication, and critiques from other scientists mean that eventually the best ideas emerge despite any individual’s biases. Within scientific circles, it’s considered admirable to give up cherished ideas when evidence shows you to be wrong.

Mooney believes this is a key difference between liberals and conservatives.  Scientists are overwhelmingly liberal — they have to be, or they won’t get far in their profession.  Please note this does not mean that their scientific discoveries are liberal or democratic.  Scientific findings aren’t political, they’re reality, and only become “political” when spun that way.

Most of the important problems that need to be solved require scientific literacy (coping with energy and resource decline, climate change, nuclear and toxic industrial waste disposal, improved crops to increase food production, sea level rise, and soon).

But less than 10% of Americans have scientific literacy — indeed quite the opposite with half not believing evolution, and high numbers believing in astrology and other pseudoscience.

Here’s how scientific news is interpreted by the other 90% of the public:

“When it comes to the dissemination of science—or contested facts in general—across a nonscientific populace, a very different process is often occurring than the scientific one.  A vast number of individuals, with widely varying motivations, are responding to the conclusions that science, allegedly, has reached.  Or so they’ve heard.

They’ve heard through a wide variety of information sources—news outlets with differing politics, friends and neighbors, political elites—and are processing the information through different brains, with very different commitments and beliefs, and different psychological needs and cognitive styles. And ironically, the fact that scientists and other experts usually employ so much nuance, and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty when they communicate their results, makes the evidence they present highly amenable to selective reading and misinterpretation.  Giving ideologues or partisans data that’s relevant to their beliefs is a lot like unleashing them in the motivated reasoning equivalent of a candy store.  In this context, rather than reaching an agreement or a consensus, you can expect different sides to polarize over the evidence and how to interpret it”.

If you’re going to make the strong claim that Republicans deny science and reality, you’d better back that up.   Which Mooney does, beginning with the history of how Republicans and the Christian Right have built institutions of propaganda and recruited false experts for decades. Then he shows how these institutions have influenced issues like climate change, evolution, women’s rights, health care, economics, and so on.

Republicans have created a closed world view for their followers so they’re never exposed to ideas outside this universe of Fox TV, hate talk radio, and other right-wing and Christian propaganda.  What’s presented is carefully crafted to appeal to conservative minds and provides them with certainty and closure.

This means there can never be a moment of clarity as when Joseph Welch told McCarthy live on ABC television in 1954 “Have you no sense of decency, sir?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” and suddenly people woke up to the evils of right-wing McCarthyism and made it go away.

I kept thinking that a similar moment would happen during the Trump / Clinton campaign when Seth Meyers said:

“Do you pick someone who’s under federal investigation for using a private email server? Or do you pick someone who called Mexicans rapists, claimed the president was born in Kenya, proposed banning an entire religion from entering the US, mocked a disabled reporter, said John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he was captured, attacked the parents of a fallen soldier, bragged about committing sexual assault, was accused by 12 women of committing sexual assault, said some of those women weren’t attractive for him to sexually assault, said more countries should get nukes, said that he would force the military to commit war crimes, said a judge was biased because his parents were Mexicans, said women should be punished for having abortions, incited violence at his rallies, called global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, called for his opponent to be jailed, declared bankruptcy six times, bragged about not paying income taxes, stiffed his contractors and employees, lost a billion dollars in one year, scammed customers at his fake university, bought a six-foot-tall painting of himself with money from his fake foundation, has a trial for fraud coming up in November, insulted an opponent’s looks, insulted an opponent’s wife’s looks, and bragged about grabbing women by the pussy?  How do you choose?”

But this is not a book about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it, or how you can change a Republican’s mind now that you know how they operate. It’s more of a Carl Sagan “Science as a candle in the dark”, shining of light into the dark corners that lurk within closed minds, and groups of closed minds, shut off from reality.  Mooney casts light with the latest scientific findings and critical thinking skills.

The Big 5 Personality Traits and how they predict which party you’re likely to join

Scientists have tried to boil personality research from the past decades into a unified theory and have come up with the “big 5” personality traits (see wiki or my book review of Daniel Nettle’s book, “Personality, What makes you the way you are”).

Some of the liberal/conservative correlations with the big 5 personality traits:

  • 71% of liberals have an open outlook
  • 61% of conservatives are high in conscientiousness
  • 59% of the highly educated are liberals
  • 56% of those with very high incomes are conservatives

But these traits are not destiny.  Overall, our political views are 40% genetic, 60% environment.  There is no democratic or republican gene, but dispositions that predispose us one way or the other.

If you walked into someone’s home, you could probably tell which way they swing – liberals and conservatives hang out at different places, dress differently, date differently, and listen to different music.  Liberals have more books and music across a wider range of topics and styles than conservatives.  Conservatives have more sports paraphernalia, American flags, and cleaning supplies.

How to Avoid Giving up a Cherished Belief

Goal post shifting. Mooney defines this as demanding ever more evidence, or tweaking your view to avoid giving up a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

My expert is better than your expert.   Allows you to ignore what the other person is saying because you’ve found an expert who says the opposite. So when conservatives deny climate change, it’s because they think their experts are the best — the most realistic and truthful.

Stop seeking out more information.  Republicans have a much higher need for closure, so they are likely to seize upon information that pleases them and stop looking for more.

Republicans are More Biased than Democrats

Basically, conservatives are more strongly motivated to defend their beliefs, and are far more likely to cling to wrong views even more tenaciously when presented with incontrovertible evidence they are wrong (Backfire effect).  Smart, educated republicans better at coming up with incorrect facts to defend their beliefs than the less educated, what Mooney calls “the smart idiot effect”.  The opposite is true of Democrats – the more educated, the more likely a democrat will change his/her mind when evidence proves them wrong.

Republicans are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories (Chapman University)

American believes that the government is concealing what they know about…

  • 50% 9/11 attacks& assassination of JFK
  • 42% Alien encounters and global warming
  • 33% Plans for a one world government, Obama’s birth certificate and the origin of the AIDs virus
  • 28% the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
  • 24% the moon landing

Only 26% of Americans have no conspiracy beliefs

And 33% believe the government is concealing information about “the North Dakota crash” – a theory the researchers made up!

The most likely person to believe in a conspiracy theory is a Republican who is employed, but has a lower level of income and education. He or she is likely to be Catholic or a Christian denomination and attend religious services infrequently.  “Conspiracy theorists tend to be more pessimistic about the near future, fearful of government, less trusting of other people in their lives and more likely to engage in actions due to their fears, such as purchasing a gun.

And as far as fears go (the list of all 65 fears at Chapman University is here), as far as terrorism goes, there were clear partisan differences. Democrats were more likely to believe government has done a good job compared with either Republicans or Independents.

More intelligent people are likely to be liberal, atheist, and less paranoid than conservatives (Kanazawa 2010)

“General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognize and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles.”
Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel. So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) support Kanazawa’s hypothesis. Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.

Similarly, religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena. “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa. This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers. “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

Young adults who identify themselves as “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

Why are we so Irrational?

Mooney makes the case that reasoning didn’t evolve to make us good logicians but to make us persuasive speakers, finding evidence to support whatever our case is, and to see the flaws in other people’s arguments.

Reasoning doesn’t exist for us to get at objective truth, it’s there to defend our position in a social context.   This is why we go to such elaborate lengths to defend wrong beliefs, and come up with truly bizarre “religions” like Scientology.

There’s an evolutionary advantage to being able to talk other people into doing what you want and helping you out. There’s also an evolutionary advantage to be able to poke holes in other peoples arguments and discerning whether a speaker was reliable and trustworthy.

We may not be perfect at reasoning, but not everyone is bad at it or unwilling to change their minds based on new evidence.  But it does appear that conservative minds are more likely to strongly defend their beliefs against any argument, and to persist in sticking to their incorrect beliefs no matter what evidence challenges their ideas.

The entire group benefits when all sides of an issue are aired, with everyone able to speak up about the flaws in others arguments.  Groups that don’t allow this, where the leaders aren’t challenged, can go very astray.  People or groups who insulate themselves from different opinions can end up like crazy hermits.

Conservatives are much more likely to be “crazy hermits” and follow conservative authorities who are dead wrong.  Their minds can’t be changed because of their need for closure, not seeking out new information, and the backfire effect, all of which make them more likely to hold wrong views.  Conservatives strive harder to be unified with their teams, so even if a conservative changes his/her mind, s(he) has little motivation to speak out or pick a fight with friends, family, and other groups.  Plus conservatives are far more likely than liberals to ostracize dissenters.

Mooney strives hard to find examples of bias in liberals to contrast with the extremely strong and incorrect biases of conservatives, but try as he might, he can come up with very few liberal biases.  He says that one way liberals might be biased is in overstating harm to prevent environmental damages.

Since the book was published, Mooney has interviewed Mark Lynas about science and bias on the left in a March 4, 2013 Point of Inquiry podcast (mainly the left’s being anti-GMO), and Michael Shermer, in the February 2013 issue of Scientific American has an article “The Left’s War on Science: How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum”.

Why are conservatives conservative?

Researchers say that conservatism satisfies normal, deep human desires to manage uncertainty and fear by finding beliefs and values that are certain, stable, and unchanging.  The need for order, structure, closure, and management of threat are normal.  Other normal tendencies that conservatives have are patriotism, decisiveness, and loyalty to friends and allies.

On pages 107-109, Mooney makes the case for conservatism being the default position, by showing how you can turn democrats into republicans in certain situations.

Partisan Democratic and Republican brains differ

Partisan Democratic and Republican brains are different.  Democrats have a larger anterior cingulated cortex (part of the frontal lobe connected to the prefrontal cortex).  This is the area that makes corrective responses, that can override the automatic emotional system 1 and bring in system 2 reasoning.

Republicans have a larger right amygdala. The amygdala is at the epicenter of our fear and threat center, a central component of our emotionally-centered brain.   Those with greater fear “dispositions” such as distrust of outsiders and people of different races, tend to be politically conservative.

What are the three kinds of conservatives?

Mooney breaks them down into Economic, Status-quo, and Authoritarians.  Economic and Status-quo conservatives are intellectual and principled.  Authoritarians are more primal, driven by visceral negative responses to otherness and a desire to impose their way of doing things on others.  All three types have a resistance to change.


In these times of gridlocked politics, and the Republican War on Science (another of Mooney’s books), the Republican’s lack of reality and denial of science combined with billions of dollars invested in massive right-wing propaganda media and other institutions scares me and nearly everyone I know who’s paying attention.

Perhaps if there were a way for each side to understand one another our country could be governed more pragmatically.  Mooney is particularly upset that Republicans deny climate change, since that could drive us and most other species extinct (though see my energyskeptic post “Why do political and economic leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?” for a more nuanced understanding of what’s going on).

Across time and place, liberals are agents of change, conservatives the resisters – the yin and yang of societies.  In America, Democrats are more likely to compromise, to see things in shades of gray.  Republicans tend to be more rigid, are less likely to compromise, and see the world in more black and white terms.  These different cognitive styles lead to differences in information processing.

It’s good to be reminded not to trust your initial reactions and confabulate them into incorrect rationalizations.  If all of us could be more reflective and open to new ideas, and unattached to old ones, we might be able to create and sustain better communities.

I read this book partly because I wondered whether there were any practical insights that might help reform our broken political system.  But I doubt it, especially after hearing an NPR interview today with Robert Kaiser about his book “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t”.   Extreme partisanship and defense of turf decides what bills pass and their content far more than policy.  Most Congressmen are ignorant on important issues, so their staffs make powerful and influential decisions, which are probably not always beneficial for the public, since staffers often aspire to become corporate lobbyists.

Chris Mooney’s first chapter: Equations to Refute Einstein

We all know that many American conservatives have issues with Charles Darwin, and the theory of evolution. But Albert Einstein, and the theory of relativity?

If you’re surprised, allow me to introduce Conservapedia, the rightwing answer to Wikipedia and ground zero for all that is scientifically and factually inaccurate, for political reasons, on the Internet. Claiming over 285 million page views since its 2006 inception, Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer, engineer, homeschooler, and one of six children of Phyllis Schlafly, the antifeminist and anti-abortionist who successfully battled the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. In his mother’s heyday, conservative activists were establishing vast mailing lists and newsletters, and rallying the troops. Her son learned that they also had to marshal “truth” to their side, now achieved not through the mail but the Web.

So when Schafly realized that Wikipedia was using BCE (“Before Common Era”) rather than BC (“Before Christ”) to date historical events, he’d had enough. He decided to create his own contrary fact repository, declaring, “It’s impossible for an encyclopedia to be neutral.” Conservapedia definitely isn’t neutral about science. Its 37,000 plus pages of content include items attacking evolution and global warming, wrongly claiming (contrary to psychological consensus) that homosexuality is a choice and tied to mental disorders, and incorrectly asserting (contrary to medical consensus) that abortion causes breast cancer.

The whopper, though, has to be Conservapedia’s nearly 6,000 word, equation-filled entry on the theory of relativity. It’s accompanied by a long webpage of “counterexamples” to Einstein’s great scientific edifice, which merges insights like E = mc2 (part of the special theory of relativity) with his later account of gravitation (the general theory of relativity).

“Relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world,” declares Conservapedia. “To date, a Nobel Prize has never been awarded for Relativity.” The site goes on to catalogue the “political aspects of relativity,” charging that some liberals have “extrapolated the theory” to favor their agendas. That includes President Barack Obama, who (it is claimed) helped publish an article applying relativity in the legal sphere while attending Harvard Law School in the late 1980s.

“Virtually no one who is taught and believes Relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold,” Conservapedia continues. But even that’s not the site’s most staggering claim. In its list of “counterexamples” to relativity,

Conservapedia provides 36 alleged cases, including the following: “The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54, Matthew 15:28, and Matthew 27:51.”

If you are an American liberal or progressive and you just read the passage above, you are probably about to split your sides—or punch a wall. Sure enough, once liberal and science-focused bloggers caught wind of Conservapedia’s anti-Einstein sallies, Schlafly was quickly called a “crackpot,” “crazy,” “dishonest,” and so on.

These being liberals and scientists, there were also ample factual refutations. Take Conservapedia’s bizarre claim that relativity hasn’t led to any fruitful technologies. To the contrary, GPS devices rely on an understanding of relativity, as do PET scans and particle accelerators. Relativity worksif it didn’t, we would have noticed by now, and the theory would never have come to enjoy its current scientific status.

Little changed at Conservapedia after these errors were dismantled, however (though more anti-relativity “counterexamples” and Bible references were added). For not only does the site embrace a very different firmament of “facts” about the world than modern science: It also employs a different approach to editing than Wikipedia. Schlafly has said of the founding of Conservapedia that it “strengthened my faith. I don’t have to live with what’s printed in the newspaper. I don’t have to take what’s put out by Wikipedia. We’ve got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better.”

You might be thinking that Conservapedia’s unabashed denial of relativity is an extreme case, located in the same circle of intellectual hell as claims that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and 9/11 was an inside job. If so, I want to ask you to think again. Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one’s view, is something we find all around us today. It’s hard to call it rational-and hard to deny it’s everywhere. Every contentious fact- or science-based issue in American politics now plays out just like the conflict between Conservapedia and liberals—and physicists—over relativity. Again and again it’s a fruitless battle between incompatible “truths,” with no progress made and no retractions offered by those who are just plain wrong-and can be shown to be through simple fact checking mechanisms that all good journalists, not to mention open-minded and critically thinking citizens, can employ.

What’s more, no matter how much the fact-checkers strive to remain “bipartisan,” it is pretty hard to argue that the distribution of falsehoods today is politically equal or symmetrical. It’s not that liberals are never wrong or biased; a number of liberal errors will be described and debunked in these pages. Nevertheless-and as I will show-politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers.

Their willingness to deny what’s true may seem especially outrageous when it infects scientific topics like evolution or climate change. But there’s nothing unique about these subjects, other than perhaps the part of campus where you’ll find them taught. The same thing happens with economics, with American history, and with any other factual matter where there’s something ideological-in other words, something emotional and personal-at stake.

As soon as that occurs, today’s conservatives have their own “truth,” their own experts to spout it, and their own communication channels-newspapers, cable networks, talk radio shows, blogs, encyclopedias, think tanks, even universities-to broad- and narrowcast it. The reality described through these channels is vastly different than the reality that liberals occupy. The worldviews are worlds apart- and at most, the country can only exist in one of them.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and that’s precisely where our country now stands with regard to the conservative denial of reality. For a long time, we’ve been trained to equivocate, to not to see it for what it is-sweeping, systemic. Yet the problem is gradually dawning on many of us, particularly as the 2012 election began to unfold and one maverick Republican, Jon Huntsman, put his party’s anti-science tendencies in focus with a Tweet heard round the world: To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

But the right’s rejection of science is just the beginning. And our political culture remains unwilling to acknowledge what our own eyes show us: That denying facts is not a phenomenon equally distributed across the political spectrum.

The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had-or will have-world-changing consequences. And more dangerous than any of them is the utter erosion of a shared sense of what’s true-which they both generate, and perpetuate. In these pages, we’ll encounter an array of lies, misperceptions, and misguided political beliefs, and marvel at some of the elaborate arguments used to justify them. And we’ll do some debunking-but that’s not the point of the exercise. The real goal is to understand how these false claims (and rationalizations) could exist and persist in human minds, and why they are endlessly generated. In other words, we seek to understand how the political right could be so wrong, and how conservatives, Republicans, and Tea Party members could actually believe these things.

That’s what I set out to discover when I embarked on researching this book. I wanted an explanation, because I saw a phenomenon crying out for one.

Consider, just briefly, some of the wrong ideas that have taken hold of significant swaths of the conservative population in the U.S., and that have featured prominently in public policy debates and discussions in recent years. This catalogue is necessarily quite incomplete-ignoring entire issue areas where falsehoods are rampant, like immigration. Still, it gives a sense of the problem’s sweeping extent.

The Identity of the President of the United States. Many conservatives believe President Obama is a Muslim. What’s more, a stunning 64 percent of Republican voters in the 2010 election thought it was “not clear” whether he had been born in the United States. These people often think he was born in Kenya, and the birth certificate showing otherwise is bunk, a forgery, etc. They also think this relatively centrist Democrat is a closet-or even overt-socialist. At the extreme, they consider him a “Manchurian candidate” for an international leftist agenda-and yes, those are their actual words.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. Many conservatives believe that the law they deride as “Obamacare” represented a “government takeover of health care.” They also think, as Sarah Palin claimed, that it created government “death panels” to make end-of-life care decisions for the elderly. What’s more, they think it will increase the federal budget deficit (and that most economists agree with this claim), cut benefits to those on Medicare, and subsidize abortions and the health care of illegal immigrants. None of these things are true.

Sexuality and Reproductive Health. Many conservatives- especially on the Christian Right-claim that having an abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer or mental disorders. They claim that fetuses can perceive pain at 20 weeks of gestation, that same-sex parenting is bad for kids, and that homosexuality is a disorder, or a choice, and is curable through therapy. None of this is true.

The Iraq War. The mid-2000s saw the mass dissemination of a number of falsehoods about the war in Iraq, including claims that weapons of mass destruction were found after the U.S. invasion and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were proven collaborators. And political conservatives were much more likely than liberals to believe these falsehoods. Studies have shown as much of Fox News viewers, and also of so-called authoritarians, an increasingly significant part of the conservative base (about whom more soon). In one study, 37 percent of authoritarians (but 15 percent of non-authoritarians) believed WMD had been found in Iraq, and 55 percent of authoritarians (but 19 percent of non-authoritarians) believed that Saddam Hussein had been directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Economics. Many conservatives hold the clearly incorrect view-explicitly espoused by former president George W Bush- that tax cuts increase government revenue. They also think President Obama raised their income taxes, that he’s responsible for current government budget deficits, and that his flagship economic stimulus bill didn’t create many jobs or even caused job losses (and that most economists concur with this assessment). In some ways most alarming of all, in mid-2011 conservatives advanced the dangerous idea that the federal government could simply “prioritize payments” if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling. None of this is true, and the last belief, in particular, risked economic calamity.

American History. Many conservatives-especially on the Christian Right-believe the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” They consider the separation of church and state a “myth,” not at all assured by the First Amendment. And they twist history in myriad other ways, large and, small, including Sarah PalM’s claim that Paul Revere “warned the British” and Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to put an end to slavery.

Sundry Errors. Many conservatives claimed that President Obama’s late 2010 trip to India would cost $200 million per day, or $2 billion for a ten day visit! And they claimed that, in 2007, Congress banned incandescent light bulbs, a truly intolerable assault on American freedoms. Only, Congress did no such thing. (To give just a few examples.)

Science. This is the area I care about most deeply, and the denial here is particularly intense. In a nationally representative survey released just as I was finishing this book-many prior surveys have found similar things-only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent (respectively) accepted human evolution.

In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it. The evidence suggests that many conservatives today just don’t. Errors and misperceptions like these can have momentous consequences. They can ruin lives, economies, countries, and planets. And today, it is clearly conservatives-much more than liberals-who reject what is true about war and peace, health and safety, history and money, science and government.

But why is that the case? Why are today’s liberals usually right, and today’s conservatives usually wrong? This book is my attempt to provide a convincing answer to that question, by exploring the emerging science of the political brain.

One possible answer is what I’ll call the “environmental explanation.” This is an account of today’s U.S. political right that, while it might admit that modern conservatives have become misaligned with reality, nevertheless relies on a fairly standard historical narrative to explain how we arrived in a world in which Democrats are the party of experts, scientists, and facts.

It’s an easy tale for me to tell—I’ve told a version of it before, in my 2005 book The Republican War on Science. For science in particular, the “environmental” account runs something like this:

At least since the time of Ronald Reagan, but arcing back further, the modern American conservative movement has taken control of the Republican Party and aligned it with a key set of interest groups who have had bones to pick with various aspects of scientific reality-most notably, corporate anti-regulatory interests and religious conservatives. And so these interests fought back against the relevant facts-and Republican leaders, dependent on their votes, joined them, making science denial an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity.

Thus, for instance, the religious right (then the “Moral Majority”) didn’t like evolution. And so Ronald Reagan made anti-evolutionary remarks (as, later, did George W Bush). Corporate interests, chiefly electric power companies, didn’t like the science showing they were contributing to acid rain. And they had big money-and big motives-to resist it. So Reagan’s administration denied the science on this subject and ran out the clock on dealing with it-just as, later, George W. Bush would do on another environmental problem to which power companies (and oil companies, and many other types of companies) contribute: global warming.

Meanwhile, party allegiances created a strange bedfellows effect. The enemy of one’s friend was also an enemy, so we saw conservative Christians denying climate science, and pharmaceutical companies donating heaps of money to a party whose Christian base regularly attacks biomedical research. Despite these contradictions, economic and social conservatives profited enough from their allegiance that it was in the interests of both to hold it together.

In such an account, the problem of conservative science denial is ascribed to political opportunism-rooted in the desire to appease either religious impulses or corporate profit motives. But is this the right answer?

It isn’t wrong, exactly. There’s much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics. The environmental account ascribes Republican science denial (and for other forms of denial, the story would be similar) to the particular exigencies and alignments of American political history. That’s what the party did because it had to, to get ahead. And today, goes the thinking, this leaves us with a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans in their acceptance of modern climate science and many other scientific conclusions, with conservatives increasingly distrustful of science, and with scientists and the highly educated moving steadily to the left.

There’s just one problem: This account ignores the possibility that there might be real differences between liberals and conservatives that influence how they respond to scientific or factual information. It assumes we’re all blank slates-that we all want the same basic things and then we respond to political forces not unlike air molecules inside a balloon. We get knocked this way and that, sure. And we start out in different places, thus ensuring different trajectories. But at the end of the day, we’re all just air molecules.

But what if we’re not all the same kind of molecule? What if we respond to political or factual collisions in different ways, with different spins or velocities? As I will show in these pages, there’s considerable scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case.

For instance, the historic political awakening of what we now call the Religious Right was nothing if not a defense of cultural traditionalism-which had been threatened by the 1960s counterculture, Roe v. Wade, and continued inroads by feminists, gay rights activists, and many others-and a more hierarchical social structure (family values, with the father at the head, the wife by his side). It was a classic counter-reaction to too much change, too much pushing of equality, and too many attacks on traditional values-all occurring too fast. And it mobilized a strong strand of right-wing authoritarianism in U.S. politics-one that had either been dormant previously, or at least more evenly distributed across the parties.

The rise of the Religious Right was thus the epitome of conservatism on a psychological level-clutching for something certain in a changing world; wanting to preserve one’s own ways in uncertain times, and one’s own group in the face of difference-and can’t be fully understood without putting this variable into play. (When I say “psychology” here and throughout the book, I’m referring to the scientific discipline, not to the practice of psychotherapy or counseling.

The problem is that people are deathly afraid of psychology, and never more so than when it is applied to political beliefs. Political journalists, in particular, almost uniformly avoid this kind of approach. They try to remain on the surface of things, telling endless stories of horse races and rivalries, strategies and interests, and key “turning points.” All of which are, of course, real. And conveniently, by sticking with them you never have to take the dangerous journey into anybody’s head.

But what if these only tell half the story?

This book is my attempt to consider the other half-to tell an “environment plus psychology” story. And it’s about time.

As I began to investigate the underlying causes for the conservative denial of reality that we see all around us, I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence-from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics-that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.

Let’s be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain-with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.

Nevertheless, some of the differences between liberals and conservatives have clear implications for how they respond to evidence in political debates. Take, for instance, their divergence on a core personality measure called Openness to Experience (and the suite of characteristics that go along with it). The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced-and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.

What’s more, since Openness is a core aspect of personality, examining this difference points us toward the study of the political brain. The field is very young, but scientists are already showing that average “liberal” and “conservative” brains differ in suggestive ways. Indeed, as we’ll see, it’s even possible that these differences could be related to a large and still unidentified number of “political” genes- although to be sure, genes are only one influence out of very many upon our political views. But they appear to be an underrated one. What all of this means is that our inability to agree on the facts can no longer be explained solely at the surface of our politics. It has to be traced, as well, to deeper psychological and cognitive factors. And such an approach won’t merely cast light on why we see so much “truthiness” today, so many postmodern fights between the left and the right over reality. Phenomena ranging from conservative brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling to the old “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” problem-why do poor conservatives vote against their economic interests?-make vastly more sense when viewed through the lens of political psychology.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that this argument is not a form of what is often called reductionism. Just because psychology seems relevant to explaining why the left and the right have diverged over reality doesn’t mean that nothing else is, or that I am

reducing conservatives to just their psychology (or reducing psychology to cognitive neuroscience, or cognitive neuroscience to genes, and so on). “We can never give a complete explanation of anything interesting about human beings in psychology,” explains the University of Cambridge psychologist Fraser Watts. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from the endeavor.

Complex phenomena like human political behavior always have many causes, not one. This book fully recognizes that and does not embrace a position that could fairly be called determinism. Human brains are flexible and change daily; people have choices, and those

choices alter who they are. Nevertheless, there are broad tendencies in the population that really matter, and cannot be ignored.

We don’t understand everything there is to know yet about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals are different. We don’t know how all the puzzle pieces-cognitive styles, personality traits, psychological needs, moral intuitions, brain structures, and genes-fit together. And we know that environmental factors are at least as important as psychological ones. This means that what I’m saying applies at the level of large groups, but may founder in the case of any particular individual.

Still, we know enough to begin pooling together all the scientific evidence. And when you do-even if you provide all the caveats, and I’ve just exhausted them-there’s a lot of consistency. And it all makes a lot of sense. Conservatism, after all, means nothing if not supporting political and social stability and resisting change. I’m merely tracing some of the appeal of this philosophy to psychology, and then discussing what this means for how we debate what is “true” in contested areas.

Such is the evidence I’m going to present, the story I’m going to tell. In its course, I’ll introduce information that will discomfort both sides-not only conservatives. They won’t like hearing that they’re often wrong and dogmatic about it, so they may dogmatically resist this conclusion. They may also try to turn the tables and pretend liberals are the closed-minded ones, ignoring volumes of science in the process. (I’m waiting, Ann Coulter.)

But liberals will also be forced to look in the mirror, and if I’m right about their personality traits they’ll be more open to doing so. As a result, some will learn from these pages that their refutations of false conservative claims don’t work and should not be expected to work—and that they should not irrationally cling to the idea that somehow they should.

For after all, what about liberals? Aren’t we wrong too, and dogmatic too? The typical waffling liberal answer is, “er . . . sort of.” Liberals aren’t always right—I’ll show some cases where they’re misguided and even fairly doctrinaire about it—but that’s not the central problem. Our particular dysfunction is, typically, more complex and even paradoxical.

On the one hand, we’re absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about “death panels.” People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim. Climate change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can’t comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a fellow liberal say, “I can’t believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!” And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them-to argue, argue, argue about why we’re right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation’s defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.

In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them. To begin to remedy that defect, let’s go back to the Conservapedia relativity dustup, and make an observation that liberals and physicists did not always credit. No matter how hard it is to understand how someone could devote himself to an enterprise like Conservapedia, its

author—Andrew Schlafly—is not stupid. Quite the contrary.

He’s a Harvard Law School graduate. He has an engineering degree from Princeton, and used to work both for Intel and for Bell Labs. His relativity entry is filled with equations that I myself can neither write nor solve. He hails from a highly intellectual conservative family-his mother, Phyllis, is also Harvard educated and, according to her biographer, excelled in school at a time when women too rarely had the opportunity to compete with men at that level. Mother and son thus draw a neat, half-century connection between the birth of modern American conservatism on the one hand, and the insistence that conservatives have their own “facts,” better than liberal facts thank you very much, on the other.

So it is not that Schlafly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, can’t make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schlafly makes an argument, it’s hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take or an openness to changing his mind. His own words suggest that he’s arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his “faith”), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.

Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Too often, they’ve failed to think as we will in this book, perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don’t work to change people’s minds.

But that response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief delusion is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can’t continue. Because as President Obama’s first term has shown—from the health-care battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.

My Take on this Book Given All the Other Books I’ve Read (energyskeptic booklist)

I think that they way parties influence people is by setting the agenda of what’s talked about, what the issues are, especially around election time, because the rest of the time, people aren’t paying a lot of attention.

We’re bombarded with information, and don’t have the time to read books on health care, nutrition, the history of fiat currencies and how our monetary system works, how to fix our own plumbing / electrical system / build a house — we simply must rely on “experts” because we don’t have the time to become an expert on everything in the world.

A political party is just another “expert” that to some extent we have to trust as the best choice to run government.  I bet the majority of people disagree with their political party about some of their platforms, just like the vast majority of Catholic women are on birth control despite the Pope being against it.

The way conservative and liberal minds manifest themselves in political parties at this time in America interests me less than what the idea of liberal versus conservative minds means across time and cultures, or if it’s even a useful concept.  Would educated minds be a better term than liberal minds, since people who are more educated tend to be Democrats?

As far as the differences between the two parties, Joe Bageant, in his excellent book “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War” is one of the best I’ve read. He explains how it came to be that so many people vote for politicians whose policies are against their own interests.

I see the world from a systems ecology point of view and think both democrats and republicans are nuts to think we can grow forever on a finite planet.  Both want to “grow the economy” at a time when we are at peak resources.  Political and economic ways of describing the world are more like blinders, false and narrow constructs that divert attention from what really matters — what keeps us alive: natural resources, infrastructure, and above all energy, especially liquid transportation fuels.

Is the idea of a liberal or conservative party useful, given that in all societies since civilization began, the ruling despots were mainly interested in gaining or keeping their wealth, fighting off rivals, and rewarding their tribe? First of all, for most of time, there was no political party to join, and now that they exist, framing reality as political and economic truths or moral issues distracts people from noticing their pockets are being picked and the wealth redistributed to the already wealthy.

To the extent that this is true, “conservatism” is rooted in self-interest to prevent a redistribution of land, money, and power, and “liberalism” is rooted in overthrowing the existing order and replacing it with a better or different one.  If successful, a new group reigns and the cycle of corruption and mismanagement begins again (Peter Turchin explains this cycle well).

The word corporation isn’t in the index of Mooney’s book. Or campaign finance reform, the intersection of politics and money that drives both Democratic and Republican legislation to favor special interests over the public good.  Yet I think most politicians work extremely hard to make pragmatic, not “republican” or “democratic” decisions, and care deeply about our nation and helping others, but they’re caught between the rock of funding campaigns and the hard place of not being able to fix our real problems, or even talk about peak oil, since the acknowledgement of peak oil could bring stock markets crashing down globally.

Gridlock is to some extent a way of taking corporate money to finance campaigns or an eventual return of the favor in some abstract codicil that will benefit the corporation, but if it’s too noxious to justify to the folks back home, the bill can be killed in many ways, never get out of committee, and that way the money can be taken and the public not harmed, and “getting anything done” take a heck of a long time.

And what exactly do conservative and liberal “values” and “morality” mean?  Is there a pattern?  Are there only two sides? Other countries have many political parties. Isn’t there often only one side and dissenters killed or exiled? Were hunter-gatherer liberal or democratic societies?

The best book I know to understand reality is Charles A. Hall’s “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy”.  This is a revolutionary book that uses science as the basis of economics and is full of testable hypotheses, and explains why the current Neo-classical “economics” is more crazy than the most bizarre cult or religion you can think of.  This book ought to be the economics 101 textbook at all universities.  To get an idea of what it’s about, read Richard Vodra’s review at

The past four centuries of growth resulted in one-time only economic and political systems that provided thousands of energy slaves to every person (Buckminster Fuller) in developed countries, allowing us the luxury of a democratic political system. After the decline of fossil fuels, we’ll be back in the unstable alliances, regional governments, and occasional empires of the wood-based civilizations that existed before coal started the industrial revolution (see John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization”).  Political “parties” are more likely to be determined by what tribe or family you belong to, not your liberal or conservative mind, and you probably won’t be voting unless you’re wealthy.

It seems to me that a society of conservative minds would be the normal one, selected for by warfare, since tribes that were more unified, more religious, more willing to fight and die for both their group and their God would win the most battles.  The human past was endless warfare and skirmishes.  Communities were in a constant state of fear and on alert for an attack– surely most of us had enlarged amygdala’s?

What are the selection forces liberal minds?   I have no idea.  Maybe liberals provided a bit of comic relief for the conservatives.  They were the fun people, the tribal drummers, cave painters, the best dancers around the fire.

Population exploded from 1 billion to 7 billion people once fossil fuels launched an amazing number of new industries and increased intensive agricultural production 5-fold with fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides.  Perhaps those with liberal minds coped the best with constant change and did well in getting the billions of new jobs that arose, while the conservatives remained the servants at Downton Abbey.


I’ve always been fascinated by why people fall into these camps and wondered why.  Ever since I can remember, I could be sure of rowdy political debates on holidays as relatives on either side argued about current affairs, with poor Uncle John in the middle, trying to moderate the discussions and keep them from getting out of hand.  You’d think genetics and shared experiences would have put us all on one side or the other.

This book made me think about what experiences and traits led me to have a liberal mind. I think I could have gone either way, but above all I wanted to fit in with other kids, and they overwhelmingly came from liberal families where I grew up. Judith Harris makes a very convincing case that parents don’t have nearly as much impact on children as their peers do in “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” and I strongly agree based on my own experiences.  I became a democrat the day nearly everyone’s hand shot up when the teacher asked whose parents would be voting for Kennedy.

One study Mooney cites says that the stronger a man is, the more likely he’s a  Republican (see sciencedaily “Why Are Action Stars More Likely to Be Republican?”)


Chapman University. October 11, 2016. What Aren’t They Telling Us? Chapman University Survey of American Fears.  Wilkinson College.

Kanazawa. March 2010. Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent. Social Psychology Quarterly.

Posted in Evolution, Human Nature | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Pessimism and Optimism versus Ignorance


Below are my thoughts about whether views based on scientific evidence can be labeled optimistic or pessimistic.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

When it comes to scientific topics like peak oil and climate change, most people’s opinions are based on optimism, pessimism, or ignorance. Only a small minority of people are scientifically literate in America with half the population not believing in evolution, a third not believing in climate change, and only a few percent fully understanding how much current civilization is dependent on fossil fuels, especially oil, and don’t understand why oil can’t be replaced with something else (which is covered at energyskeptic, especially in menu item “Energy” and in my book “When Trucks Stop running“.)

Scientifically literate means understanding the scientific method, how we know what we know, and what good evidence is, though even scientists may not know much outside of their own field since they are so busy with research, grad students, getting grants, and publishing.

If a point of view is based on solid scientific evidence, it shouldn’t be labeled as pessimistic or optimistic. Surely that is a logical fallacy of some kind.  For instance, this article blames lobbyists for attacks on Elon Musk and Tesla (These Are the Lobbyists Behind the Site Attacking Elon Musk and Tesla).  Both the lobbyists and the author of this article are using political arguments.  Not scientific arguments, perhaps because after the 2008 economic downturn, science reporters were among the first to be let go.  The gossipy he said she said approach of even mainstream media on scientific topics frustrates me.  I have issues with electric cars but try to use scientific evidence by explaining why it is so hard to develop a battery that is cheap, long-lasting, durable, and light-weight enough due to principles of science here, why heavy duty trucks can’t run on batteries here, and why there may not be enough lithium here.

I have done a great deal of research on nutrition, especially grain nutrition, so I was startled to see a book called “Grain Brain” that claims “carbs are destroying your brain. And not just unhealthy carbs, but even healthy ones like WHOLE GRAINS can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and much more”.  And beyond that, the reference citations looked very scientific, but as you can see in my book review of Grain Brain, the papers cited did NOT back up what he was saying, especially the few peer-reviewed papers (most references were junk science), and almost no recent evidence was offered to support his claims.

As far as peak oil, the limits to growth, energy returned on energy invested (EROEI, EROI) and other controversial or taboo topics such as overpopulation and carrying capacity, I find I am usually dismissed by people who label themselves as optimists because they think I am a pessimist, regardless of the evidence.

An optimist voicing an opinion not backed up with good scientific evidence is not an optimist, they’re ignorant.  And likely to remain that way — an optimist doesn’t want to see “pessimistic” ideas, and doesn’t seek them out.

And who has the time to properly research complex topics? Consider what it took for me to become aware of peak  everything, climate change, carrying capacity, overpopulation, soil erosion, exponential growth, and a hundred other related topics:

  • In high school I decided that my purpose in life was to get a big picture view of how the world worked across every field possible, from anthropology to zoology (see my energyskeptic booklist)
  • I suspect this is a rare goal because I haunted the non-fiction sections of the best bookstores in Berkeley and San Francisco and usually had those sections to myself
  • I wanted the most trustworthy books, but how could I know which ones were telling the truth? So I pursued critical thinking skills by subscribing to scientific and skeptical magazines.
  • I read books on the philosophy of science. Even though I’d majored in biology with a chemistry/physics minor I hadn’t fully grasped that science isn’t just “facts”, it’s a process, a method of understanding the world, the most successful one ever invented that’s constantly revised and fine-tuned as new evidence appears
  • It also took me a while to figure out that peer-reviewed evidence is best, and that some peer-reviewed evidence is better than others (i.e. an article about health based on 20,000 people over decades beats a mouse study)
  • Yet I still make mistakes, misinterpret, think I understand something but don’t, aren’t critical enough…so I value it when readers catch my errors and let me know
  • My career was in systems analysis which greatly enhanced my analytical skills
  • Loving books –over 99% of what I’ve read the past 44 years is non-fiction.  This gave me a “big picture view” and a BS-meter to evaluate new information with
  • Willing to continue research despite having cherished notions crushed – it’s like finding Santa doesn’t exist over and over again when you read about the state of the world.  And I continued despite the very negative feedback from friends and family who thought I was being pessimistic about Peak Oil and Hubbert’s Peak — see “Telling Others
  • Having the time to read. I don’t have children, and during my 30 year as a systems engineer/analyst, I read books as I walked 10 miles a day to and fro from work
  • Delving deeply into important topics. I spent 3 years reading soil science textbooks and journals before I knew enough to write “Peak Soil
  • Nearly all articles about windmills, solar, and so on in press releases and media are positive, because there’s money to be made by getting investors or research grants, and readers prefer to read positive stories. It is very difficult to find the articles that present the obstacles and roadblocks to a technology. Negative results are often not published. People are highly unlikely to stumble on them unless they are looking for them.  And pessimistic podcasts, news reports, books, and articles don’t sell, so who can blame the media for not publishing them?

I wouldn’t have found out about peak oil as soon as I did if I hadn’t read my Grandpa Pettijohn’s autobiography “Memories of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” in 2000.  I discovered he was a friend of M. King Hubbert, who predicted there would be a peak in world oil production around 2000 (and hey, it was 2000!), and accurately predicted the peak of oil in the lower 48 states in the early 70s (and it did in 1971), which has led to 16 years of investigation since then.  It helped that I was no stranger to the energy crisis — I’d been involved in an alt tech group during the first 1973 energy crisis.

I should have found out about Peak Oil a long time before 2000 — after all, I haunted the non-fiction section of bookstores.  But they never carried Gever’s 1991 “Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades”, Youngquist’s 1997 “Geodestinies”, and other books.  Nor would my research have gotten so far so quickly if I hadn’t learned about important books and articles on forums like energyresources.

A lot of what I write about are the barriers and obstacles to alternative energy resources that you seldom see elsewhere, and it is very hard for me to find this information. This is because 99.99% of what you see is positive, often a breakthrough of some sort. Negative news or lack of positive results doesn’t sell to the public and is often not published in scientific journals, a problem that has lately been recognized and will hopefully be remedied.  The bad news is usually buried at the end of 400-page department of energy papers, or critiques within the hydrogen, solar, or wind journal articles about the issues of approaches of other researchers in their field.

Since our entire civilization is fossil-fuel based, you would think that would be a major topic in school.  But very few people know how powerful oil is and difficult to substitute (see my energy overview here).  I am often accused of being in the pay of the oil industry.  I understand — I would have thought the same when I was younger when I believed that evil oil and coal companies were preventing renewable energy from replacing fossil fuels so they could make even more money.

And why would anyone even doubt good news?  Since what I’m saying is not in the mainstream news  it sounds crazy, and citations of scientific journals doesn’t impress most people because they don’t know the difference between good and bad evidence.  Hardly anybody follows “breakthroughs” to see how they panned out years later. There have been millions of battery breakthroughs since 1900 yet batteries still aren’t much better than they were 210 years ago.

The energy crisis is a LIQUIDS FUEL crisis. Electricity solves nothing because diesel fuel is used almost 100% of the time in the transportation that matters — heavy-duty trucks, such as the tractors that grow and harvest food, ships carrying 90% of cargo world-wide, and locomotives.

Even if you think the scientists will come up with something, time is running out.  It would take 50 years or more to replace a billion combustion engines and the pipelines and 160,000 U.S. service stations with some other liquid fuel. Which won’t come from biomass for many reasons.  Electricity will only solve the problem if we can make electric trucks.  But that is far from happening and unlikely to ever happen due to laws of physics and thermodynamics (see “Who Killed the Electric Car“), issues with catenary (overhead wire) trucks, all-electric battery trucks, hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and other posts about electric trucks.

It is also highly unlikely that an 80 to 100% renewable electric grid is even possible, which I explain in three chapters of “When trucks stop running” about the electric grid and energy storage (and within energyskeptic), i.e. we don’t have a grid that can handle intermittent power, wind is seasonal, solar is seasonal, a national grid is a bad idea, best wind and solar locations near existing grid already taken, natural gas essential to balance wind/solar is finite, and so is biomass, utility-scale battery energy storage too expensive and there aren’t enough physical minerals on earth to build them except for sodium-sulfur, hydro-power (and pumped hydro storage) and geothermal locations are mostly built out with few locations left), very few compressed air sites in salt domes available (most are in 3 gulf states, and there’s only one west of the Mississippi), and so on.

Overly optimistic projects can lead to an enormous waste of resources, as Bent Flyvbjerg points out in “Mega delusional: The curse of the megaproject“.  The consequences are huge: they can damage a national economy. Global spending on megaprojects is about $6 to 9 trillion a year, many if not most of which go way beyond optimistic cost forecasts and deliver far less benefits as well. What drives this enthusiasm for repeated failures?

  • The rapture engineers and technologists get from building large and innovative projects that push the limits
  • Politicians love constructing monuments to themselves and their causes and these grand schemes are media magnets that give politicians more exposure.
  • Businesses make money, and lots of jobs are created for unions, contractors, engineers, architects, consultants, construction and transportation workers, bankers, investors, landowners, lawyers and developers
  • If it doesn’t work out, the taxpayer pays.
  • The public is tricked into approval by all the job creation, new services, and perhaps environmental benefits.  But this only happens if the project is done right.  Conventional megaprojects have terrible records in both cost and benefit.
  • Psychological factors keep the illusions flowing, such as uniqueness bias in terms of technology and design where managers to see their projects as firsts, so they don’t bother to learn from other projects.
  • Also there can be a lock-in at an early stage.   Former California State Assembly member Willie Brown described the cost overruns on the San Francisco Transbay Terminal as:  “The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
  • A false sense of control is common and ignorance of potential “black swans” can bring on failure.
  • Last but far not least is the optimism bias which plagues cost estimates.
  • Reverse evolution: The projects that get chosen look the best on paper by underestimating costs and overestimating benefits.

I can’t avoid being called a pessimist, because conversation is a soundbite, shorter than a twitter. You’ve got 10 seconds to present a tiny piece of evidence lacking nuance, when it could take at least a semester to understand the many complex issues of the energy crisis.

And in the end, who wants to know that the end of oil will end of our way of life and our hundreds of energy slaves serving our every whim?

Though I must admit I’m perplexed that people don’t want to understand because this is a life and death issue. Many people have chosen college majors that will NOT be useful in a muscle and biomass based energy world, as all civilizations were before fossil fuels.  There is limited time left to move to a sustainable region of the country and gain skills like growing food, etc.  Although it’s obvious we ought to cut back on our consumption of goods and conserve energy, most Americans are doing the opposite.  As soon as oil prices went down, people started buying gas guzzling cars and light trucks, so the cafe standards have gone DOWN, not UP since 2014!  There is nothing more important than conserving oil, since unnecessary passenger cars and light trucks are sucking up 63% of the transportation oil, hastening the day when trucks, ships, and locomotives won’t have any fuel to run on.

I’ve pursued these grim topics because energy resources and the other many factors in the coming decline and fall of civilization connect the dots between almost every book I’ve ever read.  The systems analyst in me is fascinated by all the connections and inter-dependencies.  I’ve seen lists of “250 reasons why the Roman Empire failed”.  Our far more complex society will collapse for even more reasons, though ultimately mainly because of lack of oil, the master resource that makes all other resources available, including more oil.

Collapse will be a “death by a thousand cuts” — cuts that are already visible in our failing infrastructure, gulf dead zones, 6th extinction, climate change, pollution, eroded topsoil, empty aquifers.

Let’s hope wars over the remaining oil don’t bring collapse on even sooner than necessary.  There are still plenty of nuclear weapons in the world.



Posted in 2) Collapse, Optimism & Critical Thinking, Peak Oil | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments