Wall Street Journal Gets it Wrong on “why peak oil predictions haven’t come true”

WSJ Gets it Wrong on “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”

On Monday, September 29, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a story called “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True.” The story is written as if there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. The Peak Oil version of what to expect from oil limits is correct, or
  2. Diminishing Returns can and are being put off by technological progress–the view of the WSJ.

It seems to me, though, that a third outcome is not only possible, but is what is actually happening.

3. Diminishing returns from oil limits are already beginning to hit, but the impacts and the expected shape of the down slope are quite different from those forecast by most Peak Oilers.

Area of Confusion

In many people’s way of thinking, the economy is separate from resources and the extraction of those resources. If we believe economists, the economy can grow indefinitely, with or without the use of resources. Clearly, with this view, the price of these resources doesn’t matter very much. If one kind of resource becomes more expensive, we can substitute other resources, once the scarce resource becomes sufficiently high-priced that the alternative makes financial sense. Incomes can rise arbitrarily high–all it takes is for each of us to pay the other higher wages. And we can fix any problem with the financial system with more money printing and more debt.

This wrong version of how our economy works has been handed down through the academic world, through our system of peer review, with each academic researcher following in the tracks of previous academic researchers. As long as new researchers follow the same wrong thinking as previous researchers, their articles will be published. Economists were especially involved in putting together this wrong world-view, but politicians helped as well. They liked the outcomes of the models the economists produced, since it made it look like the politicians, with the help of economists, were all-powerful. All the politicians needed to do was tweak the financial system, and the world economy would grow forever. There was not even a need for resources!

Peak Oilers’ Involvement 

The Peak Oilers walked into a situation with this wrong world view, and started trying to fix pieces of it. One piece that was clearly wrong as the relationship between resources and the economy.  Resources, especially energy resources, are needed to make any of the goods and services we buy. If those resources started reaching diminishing returns, it would be harder for the economy to grow. The economy might even shrink. Dr. Charles Hall, recently retired professor from SUNY-ESF, came up with one measure of diminishing returns–falling Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI).

How would shrinkage occur? For this, Peak Oilers turned to the work of M. King Hubbert, who worked in an area of geology. He wrote about how supply of a resource might be expected to decline with diminishing returns.

Hubbert was not concerned about what effect diminishing returns would have on the economy–presumably because that was not his area of specialization. He avoided the issue by only modeling the special case where no economic impact could be expected–the special case where a perfect substitute could be found and be put in place, in advance of the decline caused by diminishing returns.

Figure 1. Figure from Hubbert's 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

In the example shown above, Hubbert assumes cheap nuclear would take over, before the decline in fossil fuels started. Hubbert even talked about making cheap liquid fuels using the very abundant nuclear resources, so that the system could continue as before.

In this special case, Hubbert suggested that the decline in resources might follow a symmetric curve, slowly declining in a pattern similar to its original rise in consumption, since this is the pattern that often occurs in extracting a resource in nature. Many Peak Oilers seem to believe that this pattern will happen in the more general case, where no perfect substitute is available, as well. A perfect substitute would need to be cheap, abundant, and involve essentially no cost of transition.

In the special case Hubbert modeled, Hubbert indicated that production would start to decline when approximately 50% of reserves had been exhausted. Peak Oilers often used this approach to forecast future production, and the date oil production would “peak.” As technology improved, additional oil became accessible, raising reserves. Also, as prices rose, resources that had never been economically extractible became extractible. Production continued beyond forecast peak dates, again and again.

Peak Oilers got at least part of the story right–the fact that we are in fact reaching diminishing returns with respect to oil. For this they should be commended. What they didn’t figure out is, however, is (1) how the energy-economy system really works, and (2) which pieces of the system can be expected to break first. This issue is not really the Peak Oilers fault–it is the result of starting with a very bad model of the economy and not understanding which pieces of that model needed to be fixed.

How the Economic System Really Works 

We are dealing with a networked economy, one that is self-organized over time. I would represent it as a hollow network, built up of businesses, consumers, and governments.

Figure 2. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

This economic system uses energy of various kinds plus resources of many kinds to make goods and services. There are many parts to the system, including laws, taxes, and international trade. The system gradually changes and expands, with new laws replacing old ones, new customers replacing old ones, and new products replacing old ones. Growth in the number of consumers tends to lead to a need for more goods and services of all kinds.

An important part of the economy is the financial system. It connects one part of the system with another and almost magically signals when shortages are occurring, so that more of a missing product can be made, or substitutes can be developed.

Debt is part of the system as well. With increasing debt, it is possible to make use of profits that will be earned in the future, or income that will be earned in the future, to fund current investments (such as factories) and current purchases (such as cars, homes, and advanced education). This approach works fine if an economy is growing sufficiently. The additional demand created through the use of debt tends to raise the prices of commodities like oil, metals, and water, giving an economic incentive for companies to extract these items and use them in products they make.

The economy really can’t shrink to any significant extent, for several reasons:

  1. With rising population, there is a need for more goods and services. There is also a need for more jobs. A growing networked economy provides increasing numbers of both jobs and goods and services. A shrinking economy leads to lay-offs and fewer goods and services produced. It looks like recession.
  2. The networked economy automatically deletes obsolete products and re-optimizes to produce the goods needed now. For example, buggy whip manufacturers are pretty rare today. Thus, we can’t quickly go back to using horse and buggy, even if should we want to, if oil becomes scarce. There aren’t enough horses and buggies, and there aren’t enough services for cleaning up horse manure.
  3. The use of debt for financing depends on ever-rising future output. If the economy does shrink, or even stops growing as quickly as in the past, there tends to be a problem with debt defaults.
  4. If debt does start shrinking, prices of commodities like oil, gold, and even food tend to drop (similar to the situation we are seeing now). These lower prices discourage  investment in creating these commodities. Ultimately, they lead to lower production and job layoffs. If deflation occurs, debt can become very difficult to repay.

Under what conditions can the economy grow? Clearly adding more people to the economy adds to growth. This can be done by adding more babies who live to maturity. It can also be done by globalization–adding groups of people who had previously only made goods and services for each other in limited quantity. As these groups get connected to the wider economy, their older, simpler ways of doing things tend to be replaced by more productive activities (involving more technology and more use of energy) and greater international trade. Of course, at some point, the number of new people who can be connected to the global economy gets to be pretty small. Growth in the world economy lessens, simply because of lessened ability to add “underdeveloped” countries to the networked economy.

Besides adding more people, it is also possible to make individual citizens “better off” by making workers more efficient at producing goods and services. Most people think of greater productivity as happening through technological changes, but to me, it really represents a combination of technological changes, plus a combination of inexpensive resources of various kinds. This combination often includes low-cost fossil fuels; abundant, cheap water supply; fertile soil; and easy to extract metal ores. Having these available makes possible the development of new tools (like new agricultural equipment, sewing machines, and vehicles), so that workers can become more productive.

Diminishing returns are what tend to “mess up” this per capita growth. With diminishing returns, fossil fuels become more expensive to extract. Water often needs to be obtained by desalination, or by much deeper wells. Soil needs more amendments, to be as fertile as in the past. Metal ores contain less and less ore, so more extraneous material needs to be extracted with the metal, and separated out. If population grows as well, there is a need for more agricultural output per acre, leading to a need for more technologically advanced techniques. Working around diminishing returns tends to make many kinds of goods and services more expensive, relative to wages.

Rising commodity prices would not be a problem, if wages would rise at the same time as the price of goods and services. The problem, though, is that in some sense diminishing returns makes workers less efficient. This happens because of the need to work around problems (such as digging deeper wells and removing more extraneous material from ores). For many years, technological changes may offset the effects of diminishing returns, but at some point, technological gains can no longer keep up. When this happens, instead of wages rising, they tend to stagnate, or even decline. Figure 3 shows that per capita wages have tended to grow in the United States when oil was below about $40 or $50 barrel, but have tended to stagnate when prices are above that level.

Figure 3. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

What Effects Should We Be Expecting from Diminishing Returns With Respect to Oil Supply?

There are several expected effects of diminishing returns:

  1. Rising cost of extraction for oil and for other commodities subject to diminishing returns.
  2. Stagnating or falling wages of all except the most elite workers.
  3. Ultra low interest rates to try to make goods more affordable for workers stressed by stagnating wages and high prices.
  4. Rising governmental debt, in an attempt to stimulate the economy and in order to provide programs for the many workers without good-paying jobs.
  5. Increasing concern about debt defaults, as the amount of debt outstanding becomes increasingly absurd relative to wages of workers, and as all of the stimulus debt runs its course, in countries such as China.
  6. A two-way problem with the price of oil. On one side is recession, when oil prices rise to unaffordable levels. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 post-World War II recession were associated with oil price spikes. He has also shown that there is good reason to expect that the Great Recession was related to the run-up in oil prices prior to 2007. I have written a related paper–Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.
  7. The second problem with the price of oil is the reverse–price of oil too low relative to the cost of extraction, because wages are not high enough to permit workers to afford the full cost of goods made with high-priced oil. This is really a problem with inadequate affordability (called inadequate demand by economists).
  8. Eventual collapse of whole system.

There have been many studies of collapses of past economies. These collapses tended to occur when the economies hit diminishing returns after a long period of growth. The problems were often similar to ones we are seeing today: stagnating wages of common workers and growing debt. There were more and more demands on governments to fix the problems of workers, but governments found it increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes for all the needed programs.

Eventually, the economic systems have tended to collapse, over a period of years. The shape of resource use in collapses was definitely not symmetric. Figure 4 shows my view of the typical shape of the collapses in non-fossil fuel economies, based on the work of Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedof.

Figure 4. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov in Secular Cycles.

In my view, the date of the drop in oil supply will be determined by what appear to on-lookers to be financial problems. One possible cause is that the oil price will be too low for producers (a condition that is occurring now). Governments will find it unpopular to raise oil prices, but at the same time, will be powerless to stop the adverse impacts the fall in price has on world oil supply.

Falling oil prices have especially adverse effects on oil exporters, because they depend on revenues from oil to fund their programs. We are already seeing this now, with the increased warfare in the Middle East, Russia’s increased belligerence, and the problems of Venezuela. These issues will tend to reduce globalization, leading to less world growth, and a greater tendency for the world economy to shrink.

Unfortunately, there are no obvious ways of fixing our problems. High-priced substitutes for oil (that is, substitutes costing more than $40 or $50 barrel) are likely to have as adverse an impact on the economy as high-priced oil. The idea that energy prices can rise and the economy can adapt to them is based on wishful thinking.

Our networked economy cannot shrink; it tends to break instead.

Even well-intentioned attempts to reduce oil usage are likely to backfire because they tend to reduce oil prices and have other unintended effects. Furthermore, a use of oil that one person would consider frivolous (such as a vacation in Greece) represents a needed job to another person.

Should Peak Oilers Be Blamed for Missing the “Real” Oil Limits Story?

No! Peak oilers have made an important contribution, in calling the general problem of diminishing returns in oil supply to our attention. One of their big difficulties was that they started out working with a story of the economy that was very distorted. They understood how to fix parts of the story, but fixing the whole story was beyond their ability. The following chart shows a summary of some ways their views and my views differ:

Figure 5. Author's summary of some differences in views.

One of the areas that Peak Oilers tended to miss was the fact that an oil substitute needs to be a perfect substitute–that is, be available in huge quantity, cheaply, without major substitution costs–in order not to adversely affect the economy and in order to permit the slow decline rate suggested by Hubbert’s models. Otherwise, the problems with diminishing returns remain, leading to declining wages and rising costs of making goods and services.

One temptation for Peak Oilers has been to jump on the academic bandwagon, looking for substitutes for oil. As long as Peak Oilers don’t make too many demands on substitutes–only EROEI comparisons–wind and solar PV look like they have promise.

But once a person realizes that our true need is to keep a networked economy growing, it becomes clear that such “solutions” are woefully inadequate.

We need a way of overcoming diminishing returns to keep the whole system operating. In other words, we need a way to make wages rise and the price of finished goods fall relative to wages; there is no chance that wind and solar PV are going to do this for us.

We have a much more basic problem than “new renewables” can solve.

If we can’t figure out a solution, our economy is likely to reach what looks like financial collapse in the near term. Of course, the real reason is diminishing returns from oil, and from other resources as well.

Posted in Gail Tverberg | Leave a comment

Almost half of Rail Freight is Energy, increasingly Crude Oil

RR crude oil carriedSource: American Association of Railroads.

46% of all tonnage hauled by freight trains is Energy:

In 2014, crude oil will likely be 650,000 carloads — 2% of all carloads, 2.2% of tonnage.  In addition 2.6% of rail tonnage was refined petroleum & coke.

In 2013, coal was 5,950,000 carloads of coal (693.8 million tons), 20.6% of all carloads, 39.5% of rail tonnage, 20% of rail revenue.

In 2012, ethanol was 306,000 carloads, 1% of all carloads, 1.5% of rail tonnage 

It’s probably more than half if you count commodities derived from petroleum.  In 2002, the last time the U.S. Dept of Transportation (RITA) published “Table 12 – U.S. Rail Total Carload and Intermodal Commodity Shipments”, 2% of rail tonnage was fertilizer, 2% plastics and rubber, and some fraction of the 1% chemical products tonnage comes from the petrochemical industry (i.e. agrochemicals, methanol, etc).  In 2002, 47% of rail tonnage was coal, coal and petroleum products, fuel oils, gasoline and aviation turbine fuel, and crude petroleum.

Alice Friedemann October 8, 2014.

Nixon, R. Oct 8, 2014. As Trains Move Oil Bonanza, Delays Mount for Other Goods and Passengers. New York Times.

An energy boom that has created a sharp increase in rail freight traffic nationwide is causing major delays for vital consumer and industrial goods, including chemicals,  coal, and grain shipments for farmers, likely to grow worse since record harvests of corn, soybeans, and wheat are expected this year.

On the long-distance routes, aging tracks and a shortage of train cars, locomotives and crews have also caused delays.

Rail accounts for 40% of all goods moved in the country as measured in ton-miles (multiply cargo weight by distance shipped). Trucks are second at 28%.

Frittelli, J., et al. May 5, 2014. U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressoinal Research Service.

According to rail industry officials, U.S. freight railroads are estimated to have carried 434,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013 (roughly equivalent to 300 million barrels), compared to 9,500 carloads in 2008. In 2014, 650,000 carloads of crude oil are expected to be carried. Crude imports by rail from Canada have increased more than 20-fold since 2011.

The Assoc of American RR says that “crude oil accounted for 1.6 percent of total Class I originated carloads in the first half of 2014.

Assuming, for simplicity, that each rail tank car holds about 30,000 gallons (714 barrels) of crude oil, the 229,798 carloads of crude oil originated by U.S. Class I railroads in the first half of 2014 was equivalent to 900,000 barrels per day moving by rail. According to EIA data, total U.S. domestic crude oil production in the first half of 2014 was 8.2 million barrels per day, so the rail share was around 11 percent of the total.”

The volume of crude oil carried by rail increased 423% between 2011 and 2012, and the volume moving by barge, on inland waterways as well as along intracoastal routes, increased by 53%. The volume of crude oil shipped by truck rose 38% between 2011 and 2012.

Rail transportation cost is perhaps $5 to $10 per barrel higher than pipeline costs.

Given the uncertainty about the future value of the oil and the longevity of the deposits, it is not certain that investors will undertake construction of pipelines from the Bakken fields to the East Coast. In that case, large volumes of crude could be transported by rail well into the future.

Rail has also been critical to development of Canadian oil sands. Although the vast majority of crude oil imports from Canada are delivered via existing pipeline, imports by rail are estimated to have increased from 1.6 million barrels in 2011 to 40 million barrels in 2013.

A significant fall-off in railroad coal movements has increased railroads’ capacity to transport oil over some routes. In 2013, railroads carried about 395,000 more tank cars of crude than in 2005, but about 1.3 million fewer cars of coal. To put the increase in crude traffic in perspective, crude oil represented less than 1% of total rail carloads in 2012. In the first three quarters of 2013, crude carloads increased to 1.4% of total rail car loadings. While, on a national scale, increased rail car loadings of crude oil represent a relatively small percentage of total traffic, significant increases in traffic in a specific area can cause bottlenecks that can reverberate across the entire rail network.

The STB held a hearing in April 2014 to hear complaints from non-oil shippers concerning poor rail service in the upper Midwest due to oil traffic and the severe winter weather.   The STB ordered BNSF and CP railroads to report how they intended to ensure delivery of fertilizer to farmers in spring 2014. At the hearing, BNSF (the railroad most directly serving the Bakken region) noted that its car loadings in North Dakota had more than doubled from 2009 to 2013, and that in October 2013, crude oil and agricultural car loadings surged by more than it could manage.

One hindrance to the expansion of crude-by-rail has been the lack of tank cars and loading and unloading infrastructure. Much of this investment is being made by the oil industry or by rail equipment leasing companies, not railroads. As of April 2014, manufacturers had 50,000 crude oil tank cars on order, on top of an existing fleet of 43,000. (This is in addition to 30,000 tank cars that carry ethanol and 27,000 that carry other flammable liquids.

Tank trucks operating on U.S. roadways have been an important link in moving crude oil from domestic drilling sites to pipelines and rail terminals. A typical tank truck can hold 200 to 250 barrels of crude oil. Trucks readily serve the need for gathering product, as the hydraulic fracturing method of drilling employed in tight oil production involves multiple drilling sites in an area and the location of active wells is constantly in flux. A large volume of crude oil is being transported by truck between production areas and refineries in Texas because of the close proximity of the two.

While there are about 57,000 miles of crude oil pipeline in the United States, there are nearly 140,000 miles of railroad

The U.S. Dept of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics only goes up to 2009 in Table 1-61: Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Transported in the United States by Mode

2009 Combined crude and petroleum products by ton-mile, percent carried by:  Pipelines (70.2), ships and barges (23.1), trucks (4.2), railroads (2.6)

Pick Your Poison For Crude — Pipeline, Rail, Truck Or Boat
by James Conca   April 26, 2014  Forbes

In the U.S., 70% of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline. 23% of oil shipments are on tankers and barges over water. Trucking only accounts for 4% of shipments, and rail for a mere 3%.

Amid a North American energy boom and a lack of pipeline capacity, crude oil shipping on rail is suddenly increasing. The trains are getting bigger and towing more and more tanker cars.

With the number of refineries decreasing, and capacity concentrating in fewer places, crude usually has to be moved some distance. There are 4 ways to move it over long distances: by pipeline, by boat, by truck, or by rail.

It’s cheaper and quicker to transport by pipeline than by rail or by truck. The difference in cost is about $50 billion a year for shipping via the Keystone pipeline versus rail.

A rail tank car carries about 30,000 gallons (÷ 42 gallons/barrel = about 700 barrels). A train of 100 cars carries about 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) and takes over 3 days to travel from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, about a million gallons per day. The Keystone will carry about 35 million gallons per day (830,000 barrels).

The Congressional Research Service estimates that transporting crude oil by pipeline is cheaper than rail, about $5/barrel versus $10 to $15/barrel (NYTimes.com). But rail is more flexible and has 140,000 miles of track in the United States compared to 57,000 miles of crude oil pipelines. Building rail terminals to handle loading and unloading is a lot cheaper, and less of a hassle, than building and permitting pipelines.

Rail. If crude oil shipping on rail is becoming a preferred mode for oil producers in our North American energy boom, this trend is very disturbing. In 2011, crude rail capacity between southern Alberta and the northern U.S. Great Plains tripled to about 300,000 barrels per day, about a third of the Keystone XL capacity. U.S. railroads delivered 7 million barrels of crude in 2008, 46 million in 2011, 163 million in 2012, and 262 million in 2013 (almost as much as that anticipated by the Keystone XL alone). To replace the Keystone XL with rail shipments would mean another doubling of rail capacity, but that would be just another couple of years given this trend.

The Association of American Railroads points out that over 11 billion gallons of crude were shipped in 2013.

Truck. The issue with trucking is that it takes lots and lots of trucks to move billions of gallons of crude since a single tank trailer only holds about 9,000 gallons or 200 barrels, a little under a third of a rail car. Our present fleet only handles 4% of our needs, so shipping by truck instead of the Keystone XL would take another 1.5 million tanker trucks.


Crude is a nasty material, very destructive when it spills into the environment, and very toxic when it contacts humans or animals. It’s not even useful for energy, or anything else, until it’s chemically processed, or refined, into suitable products like naphtha, gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, asphaltics, mineral spirits, natural gas liquids, and a host of others.
U.S. Refinery Capacity by PADD (Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts) in 2012.

U.S. Refinery Capacity by PADD (Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts) in 2012. Source: Congressional Research Service; Energy Information Administration

Every crude oil has different properties, such as sulfur content (sweet to sour) or density (light to heavy), and requires a specific chemical processing facility to handle it (Permian Basin Oil&Gas). Different crudes produce different amounts and types of products, sometimes leading to a glut in one or more of them, like too much natural gas liquids that drops their price dramatically, or not enough heating oil that raises their price.

As an example, the second largest refinery in the United States, Marathon Oil’s GaryVille Louisiana facility, can handle over 520,000 barrels a day (bpd) of heavy sour crude from places like Mexico and Canada but can’t handle sweet domestic crude from New Mexico.

Thus the reason for the Keystone Pipeline or increased rail transport – to get heavy tar sand crude to refineries along the Gulf Coast than can handle it.

The last entirely new petroleum refinery in the United States opened in 1976 (Congressional Research Service). Since then, the number of refineries has steadily declined while refining capacity has concentrated in ever-larger facilities. 25% of U.S. capacity is found in only eleven refineries. Recently, Shell’s Baytown refinery in Texas, the largest in the nation, was expanded to 600,000 bpd. Most of the big refineries can handle heavy crude, but many smaller refineries can process only light to intermediate crude oil, most of which originates within the U.S.

33 states have refineries, and most refineries can handle tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of barrels per day, but the largest capacity sits around the Gulf Coast and in California where the oil boom in America began. However, in the 1990s after production of sweet domestic crude had significantly declined from mid-century highs, the big companies like Exxon, Shell, CITCO and Valero spent billions upon billion of dollars to retool their refineries to handle foreign heavy crudes.

What is important to note, however, is that regardless of the long-hauling mode, most petroleum eventually gets onto a truck for the short moves.


Ship transport is possible along coastal waters and along large rivers and is the method that is used for almost all foreign imports except from Canada.


Posted in Oil & Gas, Pipeline, Railroads, Refining, Trucks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conservation? Maybe not: Jevon’s Paradox & the Rebound Effect

Conservation? Maybe not: Jevon’s Paradox & the Rebound Effect

by Alice Friedemann, October 7, 2014

The rebound effect makes it much more difficult to solve our energy problems, because the full energy savings aren’t realized, and the energy savings can even be negative — see Jevons paradox (a.k.a. ‘back-fire’).

It’s simple to understand – if gasoline goes from $4 to $5 a gallon so I sell my 15 mpg car for a 45 mpg one, but drive it further, faster, and more often now that it’s cheaper, my 200% increase in fuel efficiency could be mostly wiped out.

This can be quantified:  if a 5% improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency results in only a 1% drop in fuel use, the rebound effect would be 80%  ((5-1)/5 = 80%).

The only way to stop energy decline from crashing civilization is to stay under the depletion curve, and that means cutting fossil fuel consumption in transportation (When Trucks Stop). If oil depletes at 5%, consumption has to drop 5% for any meaningful benefit to society, and a lot more than that if we want to stretch supplies out a bit longer for the truly essential diesel railroad, train, tractor, and infrastructure repairing vehicles.

Shellenberger, M. Oct 8, 2014. The Problem With Energy Efficiency. New York Times.

In announcing the award [for a more efficient form of lighting -- the LED], the academy said, “Replacing light bulbs and fluorescent tubes with LEDs will lead to a drastic reduction of electricity requirements for lighting.” The president of the Institute of Physics noted: “With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that LEDs will significantly reduce overall energy consumption.

The growing evidence that low-cost efficiency often leads to faster energy growth was recently considered by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA). They concluded that energy savings associated with new, more energy efficient technologies were likely to result in significant “rebounds,” or increases, in energy consumption. This means that very significant percentages of energy savings will be lost to increased energy consumption.

The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally. Recent estimates and case studies have suggested that in many energy-intensive sectors of developing economies, energy-saving technologies may backfire, meaning that increased energy consumption associated with lower energy costs because of higher efficiency may in fact result in higher energy consumption than there would have been without those technologies.




Posted in Conserve Energy, Dependence on Oil, Net Energy Cliff | Leave a comment

Super Rust Corrodes hundreds of ships and could sink the oil industry

Blame it on super-rust, a virulent form of corrosion that has destroyed hundreds of ships and could sink the oil industry.

By Richard Martin, June 2002. Wired Magazine.

Key points (see the full article at http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/10.06/superrust.html):

Ships that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build are rusting and falling apart, spilling millions of gallons of oil every year, many of them oil tankers. From 1995 and 2001, 2856 oil tankers broke apart at sea or barely escaped that fate, according to the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners. The main cause was collision, but nearly as many suffered from excessive corrosion.

The latest generation of oil tankers are more vulnerable to rust due to the mandate that all tankers operating in the US have double hulls by 2015. This innovation has inadvertently propelled corrosion to unheard-of levels. A 2000 Intertanko report concluded that excessive rust is afflicting double hulls within two years of launch. In double hulls, accelerated corrosion is engineered right into the ships themselves. The extra layer of steel gives rust many more square feet of surface area to attack, much of it hidden in cramped, inaccessible crawl spaces. What’s more, these crawl spaces form an insulating layer that keeps the internal temperature much higher than it would be in a single-hull tanker. Corrosion rates tend to double with each 20-degree Fahrenheit increase.

Manufacturing efficiencies have reduced the thickness of hulls and decks so now many shipbuilders trade corrosion-resistance for lower cost. Every ounce of steel saved in the construction of a ship translates into greater profits for the builder and reduced fuel bills for the owner. Between 1970 and 1990, the amount of steel used to construct a tanker declined by almost one-fifth. Modern tanker walls are only 14 to 16 millimeters thick, compared with 25 millimeters a generation ago. Assuming a microbial corrosion rate of 1.5 millimeters a year, rusted-out pits would reach halfway through those hulls in five years.

Lack of Maintenance

Rust attacks steel from the moment the metal encounters moisture. To keep that from happening, shipowners paint steel surfaces with corrosion-resistant coatings and are supposed to reapply them, but first-class ship maintenance has become increasingly rare in recent decades, as ships trade hands several times and new owners care more about maximizing their investment than maintenance.  When a ship is cited for corrosion, maintenance can be avoided by shifting to another flag.

How Rusting Happens

Rust arises from an intricate subatomic dance in which water’s oxygen and hydrogen atoms snatch electrons from atoms of iron. Because saltwater conducts electricity better than freshwater, the iron in steel oxidizes more quickly in seawater – up to 0.10 millimeter per year.

The way corrosion attacks the interior of a tanker, however, is more insidious. It can be seen most vividly in the cargo tanks, which line up along the ship’s backbone beneath the deck, and in the ballast tanks that cushion the cargo tanks along their outer edges. In these areas, steel deteriorates at five, ten, even thirty times the nominal rate. In the ballast tanks, which are normally filled with seawater when the cargo tanks are empty, water conducts electrons between plates on either side, and between separate areas of a single plate – that is, the tanks become huge, if weak, batteries. The increased electrical activity hastens the metal’s degradation.

At the top of the cargo tanks, the vapor space between the oil’s surface and the underside of the deck traps highly acidic gases – products of the reaction between petroleum, oxygen, and water – that condense against the metal. The deck flexes at sea, causing degraded steel to flake off the ceilings of the tanks, exposing more bare steel for the acid to attack.

At the bottoms of the tanks, in the water that settles under the oil, corrosive bacteria thrive. Consuming hydrocarbons, microbes like Desulfovibrio desulferican produce acids that dissolve the tanks’ floors and lower sides at rates as high as 2 millimeters per year. Some microorganisms even feed on the coatings that protect the tanks from rust. Essentially, a tanker is a gigantic floating petri dish for a peculiarly vicious sort of steel-eating sludge – the ultimate metallivore.

Enforcement is hard

In addition to switching to another nation, the tanker industry is overrun with so many holding companies, limited-liability partnerships, and owners-of-record that even determining who bears ultimate responsibility for a ship can be difficult.

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Recycle Steel

This is a paper about recycling of ships, but it shows how much energy could be saved by recycling steel rather than making it from scratch with iron ore in blast furnaces (mainly powered by coal).

shipbreaking and recycling steel

Ship Recycling markets and the impact of. April 2013. International Conference on Ship Recycling.

Conclusion: The annual average of 3.6 million tonnes of melting steel scrap from the global ship recycling industry is about 1.5% of the needs of the global steel making industry for old steel scrap, so the impact of ship recycling to the steel making industry is low and therefore can’t dictate pricing.

There are two main processes in modern steel making:

  1. production from pig iron ore in a blast furnace, refined into steel in a Basic Oxygen Furnace (BOF). Some steel scrap is also added in the refining process. Around 70% of the world’s steel is produced this way
  2. production from steel scrap in an Electric Arc Furnace (EAF), around 30% of the world’s steel production. The usage of steel scrap in steel making makes absolute sense, both from the economic and the environmental points of view. The energy requirements for making 1 tonne of steel from iron ore is 23 GJ as opposed to 7 GJ when using steel scrap. Also, recycling of steel saves natural resources. Every tonne of recycled steel saves around 1.1 tonnes of iron ore, 0.6 tonnes of coal, and reduces pollution: 86% less air pollution, 76% less water pollution, a 40% reduction in water usage, and avoidance of generation of about 1.3 tonnes of solid waste. Nevertheless, reliance on iron ore is unavoidable as steel scrap is available in relatively limited quantities.


Usage of steel scrap in steel production. Contrasted to the world’s 70/30 mix (70% v 30%) of BOF and EAF in 2011, China’s mix was 90/10, India’s 40/60, and Turkey’s 25/75.

There are three sources of steel scrap for steel making :

  • 35% “own arisings” (a.k.a. “circulating scrap”, or “home scrap”) which arise internally in steel mills as rejects from melting, casting, rolling, etc;
  • (ii) 21% “new steel scrap” (or “process scrap”) which is generated when steel is fabricated into finished products; and
  • (iii) 44% “old steel scrap” (or “capital scarp”) which is steel scrap from obsolete products and which is collected, traded and sold to steel plants for remelting. Ship steel scrap obviously falls in the third category of sources of steel scrap. In recent times the market of old steel scrap is around 225 million tonnes annually

Ships are recycled primarily to recover their steel, which forms approximately 75% to 85% of a ship’s lightweight, or light ship weight (the mass of the ship’s structure, propulsion machinery, other machinery, outfit and constants).

In addition to steel, the recycling process recovers non-ferrous metals (i.e. copper), machinery, equipment, and fittings. Non-ferrous metals are particularly valuable and although just 1% of a ship’s LDT, they can recover for the recycler up to 10% to 15% of the price paid for the ship. Machinery from recycled ships is often reconditioned and sold for further use in maritime or land industries, or when it is beyond repair , it is cut and sold as steel scrap. Because the chemical composition of the steel used in shipbuilding is controlled by classification society rules and surveys, ship steel has good yield strength, ductility and impact strength. Ship steel scrap is therefore attractive for steel making.

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Moving oil by ship or barge to refineries

Frittelli, J., et al. May 5, 2014. U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.


One river barge can hold 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil. Two to three river barges are typically tied together in a single tow that carries 20,000 to 90,000 barrels, about the same load as a unit train. Coastal tank barges designed for open seas, known as articulated tug-barges, or ATBs, 22 can hold 50,000 to 185,000 barrels, although newer ATBs can carry as much as 340,000 barrels, comparable to the capacity of coastal tankers. ATBs are slower, less fuel-efficient, and more restricted by sea conditions, but nevertheless may have an economic advantage over tankers because Coast Guard crewing regulations allow them to sail with one-third to half the crew required on a tanker. Crude oil tankers used to move Alaska oil to West Coast refineries have capacities of 800,000 to over 1 million barrels.

An advantage of tankers over railroads is the greater amount of oil they can carry in a single voyage, which better matches the daily consumption rate of refineries. With the median capacity for U.S. refineries at about 160,000 barrels per day, a coastal tanker can carry a two-day supply of oil. In addition, while railroads must build and maintain tracks and pay property taxes on their rights-of-way, the ocean is free, and harbor channels are largely provided by the federal government. For these reasons, tankers can be much cheaper than railroads in moving oil, even though the railroad route may be much more direct. For instance, the distance between the Bakken region in North Dakota and refineries in the Northeast is approximately 1,800 miles, and the cost of railroad transport is $14 per barrel. 23 The distance from Texas ports near the Eagle Ford region to the same refineries is about 2,100 miles, and tanker rates are $5 to $6 per barrel. 24 Similarly, the overland distance from the Eagle Ford region to Los Angeles-area refineries is about 1,400 miles, and the estimated cost of railroad transport is $15 per barrel, while the water route through the Panama Canal is 5,200 miles and is estimated to cost $10 per barrel. 25

Although seemingly a circuitous route compared to rail, it is not inconceivable that tankers could play a role in moving Bakken oil to East or West Coast refineries. Significant amounts of Bakken oil are moved to Gulf Coast terminals by pipeline, railroad, barge, or combinations of these modes for refining within that region. From a Gulf Coast port, tankers could transport the oil to either East or West Coast refineries. Via existing rail and pipeline connections to Great Lakes ports, tankers could also move Bakken oil from there to Northeast refineries.

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When trucks stop running, Civilization stops running.

If Trucks Stopped Running

by Alice Friedemann, October 1, 2014

In “Why You Should Love Trucks” I showed that essential supply chains depend on trucks partly or completely in the movement of goods (NAS).

Because of little inventory and dependence on just-in-time deliveries, our civilization would almost immediately feel the repercussions of trucks stopping.

I found three articles about what would happen. They all came to similar conclusions, which I’ve combined below (Holcomb, McKinnon, SARHC).

Day 1 without trucks

  • Manufacturers and assembly lines that use just-in-time delivery will shut down when parts run out or storage for finished products fills up.
  • Hospitals will run out of supplies like syringes and catheters within hours.
  • Milk and fresh bread will run out.

Day 2 without trucks

  • Food shortages will escalate, especially in the face of hoarding and consumer panic. Supplies of essentials and perishable foods will disappear
  • Restaurants and fast food outlets close
  • ATMs will run out of cash
  • Construction stops
  • Pharmacies close
  • Americans generate 685,000 tons of trash per day. Garbage will start piling up in urban and suburban areas creating a health hazard.

Day 3 without trucks

  • Most service stations will run out of fuel
  • Widespread lay-offs in the manufacturing sector
  • Waste water sludge becomes a problem as tanks at treatment plants are now full
  • Work on infrastructure stops as repairs can’t be undertaken
  • Public transport, fire, police, ambulances, telecommunications, utilities, mail, and other essential services stop

Day 4 without trucks

  • The repercussions start to reverberate globally, as 48,000 imported containers per day can’t be unloaded off of ships. Exports stop too.
  • All fuel supplies are depleted from service stations. Many people can’t get to work
  • With no fuel, airplanes and railroads shut down.
  • Garbage is piling up and has become a sanitary problem
  • Britain is out of beer

Day 5 without truck transport

  • Drinking water is depleted. The delay of weekly deliveries of chemicals has meant that water treatment plants can no longer guarantee that water is fit to drink.
  • Industrial production stops, a large proportion of the labor force is laid-off or unable to get to work, travel and recreation stop
  • Healthcare is confined to emergency services
  • Utilities have localized disruption of gas and electricity, and due to lack of fuel can’t pump water and gas, repair broken water and gas networks, etc
  • Livestock begin to suffer from lack of feed deliveries, wastes accumulate, ranchers can’t transport animals to slaughterhouses,  meat production stops
  • The Swedish Alcohol Retail Monopoly is out of alcohol

Within four weeks:

  • The nation will exhaust its clean water supply and water will be safe for drinking only after boiling.
  • If this happened at harvest time, many crops will rot in the fields
  • The Department of Defense supply chain will break down, crippling the military “in ways no adversary has been able to achieve”.
  • Global financial collapse (my addition).  A halt of international trade would bring the financial system down, probably sooner than this.

This is just a partial list of what would occur.

American Truckers react to “When Trucks Stopped” (CDLLife)

Many truck drivers thought they ought to stop driving to make people respect and care about them more:

  • The country would stop! At times I think that is what needs to happen! 32 years of being out here, looking out a windshield and watching life go by! Companies and the public not treating us, the back bone of this country, with any respect! Companies just think we are machines and we have no life outside this truck! The rules and regulations are getting stupid and taking money away from the driver and his or hers family! It also puts us in the truck longer! But, if the gas and diesel haulers just shut down for 72 hours, watch what happens!
  • We tried that for YEARS. The Big Companies won’t allow there drivers to shut down. They are to money hungry. The OWNER OPERATORS try but they can’t do it by themselves. So it doesn’t get done. Great idea but hasn’t worked in the past.
  • Like James Cameron said the owned ops would have to block fuel islands there are so many foreign fu@ks that will not stop nor care about are problems and these big company’s have so many of us by the balls
  • you know just as well as I do that wont happen unless every driver out there will participate. were just like the rest of the human race. only a hand full care to know the truth. the rest dont care. just like our presedent.
  • Let’s stop talking about it and just do it…. We run this country, not some bullshit government
  • Teach the government that trucks are needed for life on earth
  • Every other means of transportation is subsidized my the government except us!!!!! That tells me, that the government does not think of us very upstanding. It shows me that they don’t care for us. Trucking is the only industry that is governed on how many hours you can work, you are told when to sleep, when to get up, and basically told when you can see your family. We’re like Ronnie Milsaps’ song states, Prisoners of the Highway!!!!!

Truckers comment on what would happen:

  • Stores would be empty inside of a week for one. Rioting and lawlessness would set in soon after.
  • The life as we know it will end, there’s only one thing that’s not shipped by truck and that’s the air we breathe….
  • Everybody dies
  • World War 3
  • the world would probably end
  • America will fall apart!!!
  • There would be alot of cold hungry naked people out there
  • Everybody dies


There are many reasons trucks could stop running, but my concern is the inevitable time when oil production has fallen so low it impacts the ability of trucks to do the essential work of society.

The United States government (DOE, EIA, EERE, National Laboratories, and state governments) and private businesses are well aware of this problem and have teamed up to try to make trucks that get better mileage on alternative fuels like biodiesel, batteries, compressed natural gas, other fuels, better tires, and so on.

The next few posts will focus on how we can keep trucks running, because without trucks, America stops.


ATA. American Trucking Association. About Trucks Bring It. http://www.trucking.org/Trucks_Bring_It.aspx

CDLLIFE.com. November 30, 2013. If Trucks stopped… https://www.facebook.com/cdllife/posts/659785004044448

Holcomb, Richard D. July 14, 2006. When Trucks Stop, America Stops. American Trucking Association.

McKinnon. November 2004. Life without Lorries: The impact of a temporary disruption of road freight transport in the UK. Commercial motor magazine.

NAS National Academy of Sciences. 2012. NCFRP Report 14: Guidebook for Understanding Urban Goods Movement.

SARHC. A Week without Truck Transport. Four Regions in Sweden 2009. Swedish Association of Road Haulage Companies.




Posted in Cascading Failure, Dependence on Oil, Infrastructure, Oil Shocks, Transportation, Transportation, Trucks | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Nitrogen Bomb – fossil-fueled fertilizers keep 5.5 billion people alive

Fisher, D. 4 April 2001. Discover magazine Vol. 22 No. 4 

The Nitrogen Bomb. By learning to draw fertilizer from a clear blue sky, chemists have fed the multitudes.

They’ve also unleashed a fury as threatening as atomic energy.

In 1898, Sir William Crookes called on science to save Europe from impending starvation. The world’s supply of wheat was produced mainly by the United States and Russia, Sir Crookes noted in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As those countries’ populations grew, their own demands would outpace any increase in production. What then would happen to Europe? “It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities,” Crookes cried. “It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.”

The crux of the matter was a lack of nitrogen. By the 1840s agricultural production had declined in England, and famine would have ensued if not for the discovery that the limiting factor in food production was the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Adding nitrogen in the form of nitrate fertilizer raised food production enough to ward off disaster. But now, at the end of the century, the multiplying population was putting a new strain on agriculture. The obvious solution was to use more fertilizers. But most of the world’s nitrate deposits were in Chile, and they were insufficient. Where would the additional nitrogen come from?

That question, and Crookes’s scientific call to arms, would trigger a chain reaction as far-reaching as the ones unleashed at Los Alamos four decades later. Historians often describe the discovery of nuclear power as a kind of threshold in human history— a fire wall through which our culture has passed and cannot return. But a crossing every bit as fateful occurred with research on nitrogen. Like the scientists of the Manhattan Project, those who took up Crookes’s challenge were tinkering with life’s basic elements for social rather than scientific reasons. And like the men who created the atomic bomb, they set in motion forces beyond their control, forces that have since shaped everything from politics to culture to the environment.

Today nitrogen-based fertilizers help feed billions of people, but they are also poisoning ecosystems, destroying fisheries, and sickening and killing children throughout the world. In ensuring our supply of food, they are wreaking havoc on our water and air.

Nitrogen is essential to the chemistry of life and, sometimes, its destruction. It winds its way through all living things in the form of amino acids— which are chains or rings of carbon atoms attached to clusters of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms— and it is the primary element of both nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene, or TNT.

Nitrogen-based fertilizer is now so common, and the chemistry of explosives so well known, that any serious fanatic can make a bomb. The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown up in 1995 with nitrate fertilizer sold in a feed store, combined with fuel oil and a blasting cap.

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen— enough to feed human populations until the end of time. But atmospheric nitrogen is made up of extremely stable N2 molecules that are reluctant to react with other molecules. Bacteria convert some atmospheric nitrogen first into ammonia (NH3), then into nitrites (NO2- ) and nitrates (NO3- ), but not nearly enough for modern agriculture. What was needed by the end of the 19th century was a way of imitating these microbes— of “fixing” atmospheric nitrogen into a chemically active form.

A few years before William Crookes gave his speech, lime and coke were successfully heated in an electric furnace to produce calcium carbide, which then reacted with atmospheric nitrogen. Crookes himself had shown that an electric arc can “put the air on fire,” as he described it, oxidizing the nitrogen into nitrates. But the electricity needed for either process was prohibitively expensive. Crookes suggested the use of hydroelectric power, but only Norway had sufficient hydroelectric power, and although the Norwegians constructed a nitrogen-fixation plant, it furnished barely enough nitrogen for domestic use. The rest of Europe still faced the specter of hunger. Into this disquieting scene stepped Fritz Haber.

Haber was a young German physical chemist who renounced his Judaism to enhance his career: Academic opportunities in Germany, as in most other European countries, were limited for Jews at that time. Haber’s first academic appointment after receiving his Ph.D. was as a porter, or janitor, in the chemistry department at the University of Karlsruhe. But he soon talked his way into a lectureship, and in 1898 he was appointed professor extraordinarius and was ready to begin thinking about the problem of nitrogen.

Haber began by considering the possibility of converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia directly by reacting it with hydrogen. Previous experimenters had found that the reaction would take place only at high temperatures— roughly 1,000 degrees Celsius— at which ammonia was known to break down instantly. But Haber’s own experiments confirmed that he could transform only about 0.0048 percent of the nitrogen into ammonia in this way. Moreover, a comprehensive investigation of thermodynamic theory confirmed what he had long suspected: that ammonia could be produced in large quantities only under high pressure— higher than was then attainable, but not impossibly high. The problem now became one of finding the right balance between pressure and temperature to get the best results, and of finding a catalyst that might allow the pressures to be brought just slightly back down into the realm of commercial possibility.

After a long search Haber found the element uranium to be just such a catalyst, and with a few further technical refinements he was able to produce nearly half a liter of ammonia an hour. Best of all, the process required little energy, and this obscure metal, having no other commercial use, was cheap.

The company Badische Anilin-& Soda-Fabrik (BASF) sent the chemist Alwin Mittasch and the engineer Carl Bosch to Haber’s laboratory for a demonstration. And, of course, everything went wrong. Haber begged them to stay while he fiddled with the apparatus. Time went by, and Bosch left. Then, just as Mittasch was preparing to leave, the ammonia began to drip out of the tubing. Mittasch stood and stared, and then sat down again, deeply impressed. By the time he left, the ammonia was flowing freely.

It took another three years for the company’s engineers, led by Bosch, to scale up the experiment to commercial levels, but by 1912 the Haber-Bosch process was a viable means of producing fertilizer. Haber and Bosch would later receive Nobel prizes for their efforts, the threat of famine was averted, and the world lived happily ever after. Well, not quite.

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany in the early 1900s was the most powerful state in Europe, with the strongest army, the greatest industrial capacity, and a patriotic fervor to match. The Germans wanted their “rightful place” in the world order, yet their country could not grow except at the expense of someone else’s borders. Nor could Germany fulfill her ambitions through colonization— most of the undeveloped world had already been claimed.

With no room to grow, or even stretch, the kaiser’s fancy turned to thoughts of war. Three inhibitions, however, held him back. The first was the problem of nitrogen for fertilizer, since in these first years of the century Haber had not yet begun his work. Germany was the world’s largest importer of Chilean nitrates, and without a constant infusion of fertilizer, its poor, sandy soils got worse every year. The second problem was again lack of nitrogen, this time for explosives. The third problem was Britain’s Royal Navy, which ruled the seas. If Germany were to start a war, the Royal Navy would cut off its supply of nitrates from Chile, and the population would slowly starve while the armed forces ran out of explosive shells and bombs.

How wonderful for the kaiser, then, was Fritz Haber’s invention of industrial nitrogen fixation. In one stroke Germany would be able to produce all the fertilizer and explosives it needed— provided the war didn’t last too long. In 1913 the first nitrogen-fixing plant began operations at Oppau. A year later, Austria’s heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Germany soon pushed Austria to declare war and loosed its own troops both east and west.

World War I ended four years later with the establishment of Soviet Russia and the collapse of Germany, leading directly to the rise of Nazism with all its horrors and to World War II. None of this could have come about without the discovery of commercial nitrogen fixation. In trying to save Europe, Fritz Haber came close to destroying it.

And in trying to feed humankind, we may yet starve it. Civilization’s bloodiest century, sent on a rampage by nitrogen’s emancipation, has passed into history. But the paradox of nitrogen remains. First it was all around us and we couldn’t use it. Now we know how to use it, and it’s suffocating us.

The planet’s 6 billion humans (and counting) rely more than ever on fertilizer to augment the natural nitrogen in soils. In fact, we now produce more fixed nitrogen, via a somewhat modified Haber-Bosch process, than the soil’s natural microbial processes do. Farmers tend to apply more fertilizer rather than take a chance on less, so more nitrogen accumulates than the soil can absorb or break down. Nitrates from automobile exhaust and other fossil-fuel combustion add appreciably to this overload. The excess either gets washed off by rainfall or irrigation or else leaches from the soil into groundwater. An estimated 20 percent of the nitrogen that humans contribute to watersheds eventually ends up in lakes, rivers, oceans, and public reservoirs, opening a virtual Pandora’s box of problems.

Algae, like all living organisms, are limited by their food supply, and nitrogen is their staff of life. So when excess nitrogen is washed off into warm, sunlit waters, an algal bacchanalia ensues. Some species form what is known as a “red tide” for its lurid color, producing chemical toxins that kill fish and devastate commercial fisheries. When people eat shellfish tainted by a red tide, they can suffer everything from skin irritation to liver damage, paralysis, and even death. As Yeats put it, “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.”

Algal blooms, even when nontoxic, block out sunlight and cut off photosynthesis for the plants living below. Then they die off and sink, depleting the water’s supply of oxygen through their decomposition and killing clams, crabs, and other bottom dwellers. In the Baltic Sea, nitrogen levels increased by a factor of four during the 20th century, causing massive increases in springtime algal blooms. Some ecologists believe this was the main cause of the collapse of the Baltic cod fishery in the early 1990s.

Every spring, the same process now creates a gigantic and growing “dead zone” one to 20 yards down in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, which drain 41 percent of the continental United States, wash excess nitrates and phosphates from the farmlands of 31 states, as well as from factories, into the Gulf. The runoff has created a hypoxic, or deoxygenated, area along the coast of Louisiana toward Texas that has in some years grown as large as New Jersey. This area supports a rich fishery, and dire consequences similar to those in the Baltic Sea can be expected if nothing is done. So Haber’s gift of nitrogen was not entirely a boon in the area of food: It increased food production on land, but now it threatens our supply of food from the sea.

Four years ago the Environmental Protection Agency formed a task force of experts to address the dead-zone problem. Their final plan of action, submitted in January, calls for increased research, monitoring, education, and more planning. Above all, the plan proposes incentives for farmers to use less fertilizer. But the addiction will be hard to break. Unlike nuclear energy, nitrogen fertilizer is absolutely necessary to the survival of modern civilization. “No Nitrates!” and “Fertilizer Freeze Forever!” are not viable slogans. At the end of the 19th century there were around 1.5 billion people in the world, and they were already beginning to exhaust the food supply. Today, as the population surges past 6 billion, there is no way humanity could feed itself without nitrogen fertilizers. As Stanford University ecologist Peter Vitousek told us recently, “We can’t make food without mobilizing a lot of nitrogen, and we can’t mobilize a lot of nitrogen without spreading some around.”

Algal blooms are just one of the many disastrous side effects of runaway nitrogen. In Florida, for example, nitrogen (and phosphorus) runoff from dairies and farms has sabotaged the native inhabitants of the Everglades, which evolved in a low-nutrient environment. The influx of nutrient-loving algae has largely replaced the gray-green periphytic algae that once floated over much of the Everglades. The new hordes of blue-green algae deplete the oxygen and are a less favorable food supply. So exotic plants such as cattails, melaleuca, and Australian pine have invaded the Everglades. Just as shopping-mall and subdivision developers have paved over most habitable land to the east and south, these opportunists have covered the native marshes and wet prairies where birds once fed. Beneath the surface, the faster-accumulating remains of the new algae have almost completely obliterated the dissolved oxygen in the water. Few fish can survive.

Nitrogen also contaminates drinking water, making it especially dangerous for infants. It interferes with the necessary transformation of methemoglobin into hemoglobin, thus decreasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and causing methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. The EPA has named nitrates, along with bacteria, as the only contaminants that pose an immediate threat to health whenever base levels are exceeded, and increasingly they are being exceeded. According to a 1995 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, 9 percent of tested wells have nitrate concentrations exceeding the EPA limit; previous studies showed that only 2.4 percent of the wells were dangerous.

Mass-produced Nitrogen made modern warfare possible. What other explosions lie ahead?

Beefing up agriculture not only contaminates our water, it corrupts the air. As fertilizers build up in the soil, bacteria convert more and more of it into nitrous oxide (N2O). Nitrous oxide is best known as “laughing gas,” a common dental anesthetic, but it is also a powerful greenhouse gas, hundreds of times more effective than carbon dioxide, and a threat to the ozone layer. Like a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to create and foster life on Earth, our ecosphere can apparently withstand little tinkering. Bend one little pole the wrong way, and the whole interlocking mechanism goes out of whack.

Scientists around the world are working to reverse the effects of eutrophication, as the introduction of excessive nutrients is called. But while fuel-cell car engines and other advances loom in the near future, and chlorofluorocarbons have largely been replaced with safer chemicals, there is no such substitute for nitrogen. “An enormous number of people in the underdeveloped world still need to be better fed,” says Duke University biogeochemist William Schlesinger, “particularly in India and Africa. When they come online agriculturally, sometime in the next 50 years, at least twice as much nitrogen will be deployed on land each year.”

Improving the management of fertilizer is one good way to decrease runoff. If we can better understand exactly when crops need to absorb nitrogen, farmers can learn to apply fertilizer sparingly, at just the right time. “When application and uptake are coupled,” says Schlesinger, “it minimizes the amount of runoff.” In some watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay, farmers have reduced their nutrient runoff voluntarily. In other areas, farmers haven’t had a choice: When the Soviet Union and its economy collapsed, fertilizer was suddenly hard to come by near the Black Sea. As a result, the hypoxic zone in the Black Sea shrank appreciably.

Another, less drastic strategy for reducing the use of nitrogen is called “intercropping” and goes back to Roman times. By alternating rows of standard crops with rows of nitrogen-fixing crops, such as soybeans or alfalfa, farmers can let nature do their fertilizing for them. Intercropping could be a godsend to the developing world, where fertilizer is hard to come by. The difficulty is devising new plowing schemes, and farmers, like everyone else, are reluctant to abandon tried-and-true methods. But even successful farmers in the United States might be convinced. Aside from protecting the global environment— a somewhat intangible goal— intercropping could save them money on fertilizer. And farming areas are often most affected by groundwater contaminated by nitrates.

Other researchers are developing natural processes to clean up our mess. Just as some bacteria can draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and expel it as nitrates, others can consume nitrates and expel nitrogen molecules back into the air. Denitrifying bacteria are too scarce to clean up all nitrogen pollution, but they could be used much more extensively. For example, some farmers in Iowa and near the Chesapeake Bay drain their fields through adjacent wetlands, where denitrifying bacteria are common, so that excess nitrogen is consumed before it reaches streams, rivers, and bays.

Biologists willing to brave a slippery slope might want to go further, adding denitrifying bacteria to soil or water contaminated with nitrates. In the last few years several bacterial strains that might be useful have been identified. Why not genetically modify them to do exactly what we want? To anyone familiar with the ravages of invasive species worldwide, the danger is obvious.

Genetically modified microbes would have to be spread over large areas, making them hard to monitor. And in developing countries, where the need is greatest, there are few experts to do the monitoring.

The specter of genetically engineered bacteria spreading beyond the targeted regions, and mutating into new strains, brings to mind a picture of biogeochemists in the 22nd century looking back on the halcyon days when people still had the luxury of worrying about nitrogen. Fritz Haber couldn’t have imagined that he was altering Earth’s environmental balance when he thought to heat up uranium, hydrogen, and air at high pressure. If we’re not careful, our attempts to rectify that balance will only trigger another, even more destructive chain reaction.

Haber’s uranium was Oppenheimer’s uranium in more ways than one.

Another great article about this is Vaclav Smil’s 1997 Global Population and the Nitrogen Cycle Feeding humankind now demands so much nitrogen-based fertilizer that the distribution of nitrogen on the earth has been changed in dramatic, and sometimes dangerous, ways (Scientific American)..

Posted in Fertilizer, Food, Natural Gas | Leave a comment

Out of time: 50 years to make a transition, 210 years at the current rate

If transportation is to be electrified, then electric generation and the electric grid must be doubled, or even tripled. So by Cobb’s calculation, that would push back the transition time to renewables 420 to 630 years.  Alice Friedemann.

By Kurt Cobb, October 1, 2012. Christian Science Monitor.

The clunky, lagging transition to renewable energy

History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don’t have that long.

No doubt you’ve heard people speak of an energy transition from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewable energy–energy which by its very nature cannot run out. Here’s the short answer to why we need do it fast: climate change and fossil fuel depletion. And, here’s the short answer to why we’re way behind: History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don’t have that long.

Perhaps the most important thing that people don’t realize about building a renewable energy infrastructure is that most of the energy for building it will have to come from fossil fuels.

Currently, 84 percent of all the energy consumed worldwide is produced using fossil fuels–oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are therefore providing the lion’s share of power to the factories that make solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal equipment, hydroelectric generators, wave energy converters, and underwater tidal energy turbines.

Right now we are producing at or close to the maximum amount of energy we’ve ever produced from fossil fuels. But the emerging plateau in world oil production, concerns about the sustainability of coal production, and questionable claims about natural gas supplies are warnings that fossil fuels may not remain plentiful long enough to underwrite an uneven and loitering transition to a renewable energy society.

This is what’s been dubbed the rate-of-conversion problem. In a nutshell, is our rate of conversion away from fossil fuels fast enough so as to avoid an unexpected drop in total energy available to society? Will we be far enough along in that conversion when fossil fuel supplies begin to decline so that we won’t be forced into an energy austerity that could undermine the stability of our society?

The answer can’t be known. But the numbers are not reassuring. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it would take more than 70 years to replace the world’s current electrical generating capacity with renewables including hydroelectric, wind, solar, tidal, wave, geothermal, biomass and waste at the rate of installation seen from 2005 through 2009, the last years for which such data is available. And, that’s if worldwide generating capacity–which has been expanding at a 4 percent clip per year–is instead held steady.

This also doesn’t take into account the amount of energy actually produced versus what is called nameplate capacity. Nameplate capacity is what a wind generator could generate if it operated at maximum capacity 100 percent of the time. But in practice, the turbines are only spinning when the wind blows and then not always at the maximum speed. This so-called capacity factor was just 27 percent for wind farms in the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2011. For solar photovoltaic the number was 8.3 percent. Even hydroelectric stations ran at only about 35 percent of capacity. This compares to about 42 percent for conventional coal, 61 percent for natural gas, and 60 percent for nuclear power stations (PDF). The contrast is starker using U.S. numbers: 72 percent for coal and 91 percent for nuclear using 2008 figures, though natural gas was only 11 percent, probably because these were primarily plants that only come on to meet peak demand and so don’t run very often.

What this means is that installing two to three times our current nameplate capacity in the form of renewables may be required to replace existing fossil-fueled plants. So, the transition period would actually turn out to be longer than what I’ve calculated, perhaps 140 to 210 years using 2005 to 2009 installation figures.

Of course, installations of such renewables as wind and solar are accelerating. So, that would tend to shorten this longer transition period–as would leaving existing nuclear power capacity intact. But would we be able to shorten the transition period enough to head off declines in total energy production and prevent additional serious damage to the climate?

Of course, some would say that we need to expand nuclear power generation rapidly to meet these challenges. Whether you support such an expansion or not, there are three key problems. First, building enough nuclear power stations to replace fossil fuel-fired plants would be the largest construction project ever undertaken and require the use of enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Making the necessary concrete alone would be a large new contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. That means that the initial phase of a nuclear transition would actually increase the rate of fossil fuel emissions. The savings on fuel and emissions wouldn’t come until much later.

Second, after the Fukushima disaster, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for such a buildout. I’ll be very surprised if nuclear power generation even maintains its current level in the next 20 years as Japan and Germany abandon nuclear power. Third, the timeline for such a buildout would be measured in decades, partly because of the sheer logistics involved and partly because of the brake that regulatory approvals put on such projects. Even new, cheaper and easier-to-build designs may not help if they cannot achieve the necessary regulatory approvals promptly. The history of such approvals is not encouraging. The safest thing a nuclear regulatory agency can do is say no.

I haven’t even touched on replacing the fuels which power our transportation system and provide heat for our buildings and industrial processes. Transportation offers an extraordinary challenge since 80 percent of all transportation fuel worldwide is still derived from petroleum. In the United States the number is 93 percent. Despite billions of dollars spent and decades of research, we still have no good substitutes that scale to the size necessary to replace petroleum for transportation fuel.

Biofuels offer little hope. Already the ethanol bubble has burst. Biofuels–today mainly ethanol and biodiesel–compete with food. There is simply not a limitless supply of suitable farmland, and so there will be competition with the demand for food until we find substitutes for the industry’s main feedstocks, namely corn, sugar and soybeans.

Beyond this the problem of scale is simply unsolvable. To supply the entire U.S. car fleet–assuming it could run on ethanol–we’d have to plant 1.8 billion acres in corn for ethanol continuously. There are only about 440 million acres in the United States in cultivation now. And, it’s worth noting that current methods of corn cultivation require the copious use of herbicides and pesticides made from oil; tractors and other vehicles that run on oil to plow, harvest and spray the fields as well as transport the crop; and natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizers to boost growth and replenish depleted soil. Fossil fuels are currently integral to growing corn, and I cannot see the wisdom of growing organic corn for anything but food.

As for heat for buildings, certainly we could insulate and seal our existing buildings better. And, this points the way to achieving an energy transition within the time we need to achieve it. Since it will probably be impossible to scale renewable energy fast enough to a level sufficient to produce the amount of energy we use today, the one absolute necessity to a successful energy transition is reducing consumption drastically. No politician dares to say anything remotely approaching this. And yet, it would be the cheapest, fastest way to address the twin crises of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.

Now, when I say reduce, I mean on the order of 80 percent over the next 20 to 30 years. For Americans this may seem impossible until they contemplate that the average European lives on half the energy of the average American. So often we hope for technological breakthroughs that will give us all the clean energy we desire. But we ought to focus equally, if not more, on using our prowess to find ways to reduce our energy consumption drastically. This is actually the much easier road. When we are made conscious of our energy use, we can change our behavior quickly to modify it without compromising the quality of our lives. As more homes and businesses are given the means to monitor their energy use, the people in them will change to lower their consumption and costs.

Already we know how to build so-called passive design structures which can lower energy use by 80%. And, we desperately need to figure out how to apply these techniques cheaply and economically to existing homes and businesses. In transportation we need to stop thinking that cars equal transportation and instead realize that cars provide the service of transportation which can be obtained in a number of ways, many of which use much less energy.
We may also need to speed the energy transition in electric power generation using so-called feed-in tariffs. These tariffs–which harness the ingenuity of countless small producers–have enabled Germany to expand solar, wind and other alternatives so that they generate 25 percent of its electricity today. Germany, not a particularly sunny place, is currently the world’s top generator of solar electricity.

Of course, per person energy consumption in poor countries is only a small fraction of that in rich countries. We cannot expect the world’s poor to reduce their energy use by 80 percent. Instead, we must help them to move quickly beyond fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By simultaneously reducing consumption and encouraging a rapid buildout of renewable energy, it is possible that we could mitigate the problem of declining fossil fuel supplies before it becomes so acute that it would cripple that very build out. And, we could address climate change at the same time. Certainly, there are difficult problems to be solved with renewable energy, storage being the key one. Most renewable energy comes in the form of electricity, and since there is often a mismatch between the time we produce that electricity and the time we need it, we will have to master storage.

But we will need a lot less storage if we focus on reducing consumption. This is the one strategy which will allow us to overcome the rate-of-conversion problem and achieve an energy transition in far less time than we have in the past.

Posted in Alternative Energy, Electric Grid, Peak Oil | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Why You Should Love Trucks

Why You Should Love Trucks

by Alice Friedemann, September 27, 2014

truck-largesource: bitsandpieces1.blogspot.com

Before the age of fossil fuels, getting food, water, and shelter was simple. Nine out of ten people were self-sufficient farmers.

But now there are long, 24/7 just-in-time supply chains that depend on trucks and other modes of transportation between us and what we need to survive.

Trucks carry 70% of all freight (by weight) an average of 206 miles.  Five million medium and heavy-duty trucks travel 329 billion miles to deliver all these goods (ORNL).

Over 80% of communities in the United States depend completely on trucks for all their goods (ATA).

This is a shame!  Trucks ruin roads, cause the most air pollution (75% of ghg), and waste the most energy by far. Trains and ships are 4 to 6 times as energy efficient as trucks (USDOE 2008, USDOT 2009, Notteboom, Tolliver).

Trucks can substitute for most other kinds of transportation, but the reverse isn’t true:

  • Few factories, warehouses, and businesses have direct rail, barge, or ship connections.
  • There are only 140,000 miles of freight rail tracks and 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways, but over 4 million miles of roads.
  • Even if cargo could go by rail or ship, the cost to transfer it on and off again, or the risk of delay to just-in-time delivery, often make energy-inefficient trucks the preferred mode
  • This means that even if some goods travel mainly by rail, ship, or barge, a truck is usually still needed to take the goods to and from the train yard and to the final destination.

Even a container arriving by ship and then rail will get on a truck three or more times:

  1. Sea port. Container is grabbed by a reach-stacker truck and loaded on a train
  2. Destination Train yard. Unloaded by a reach-stacker
  3. Loaded onto a truck for delivery to a regional distribution center or final store delivery
  4. Regional Distribution Center. Cargo consolidated for final delivery to local stores, and often transloaded to two smaller trucks if delivery in in a dense urban area.
truck-reachstacker-ctr-xferReach-stacker truck getting a container to load onto a truck or train

Most businesses are very dependent on trucks:

  • Trucks are a key part of the 24/7 just-in-time delivery system. Large grocery stores receive 10-15 truck shipments a day, assembly lines depend on regular deliveries of a wide range of parts from many suppliers within narrow time slots.  Manufacturers have little packaging material on hand because it’s bulky and low value.
  • Tax incentives and efficiency have driven businesses to keep as little inventory as possible and instead rely on frequent deliveries by trucks

Trucks fulfill our basic needs

Food.  Trucks carry 83% of all food.

Never in human history have so many people lived so far from where their food is grown. In the past this would have caused famine, but gasoline and diesel trains, ships, and trucks solved this unprecedented problem.

  • Two-thirds of food (by value) is grown in the inland states, but two-thirds of people live in coastal states (Atlantic, pacific, or gulf).
  • By food calories, 92% of corn, 90% of soybeans, 80% of wheat, and 71% of cattle are produced in inland states.

Of all the various kinds of supply chains, from farm to table, food is the most truck-dependent.

Water. Trucks deliver water purification chemicals to water treatment plants every week or two.

Energy.  Trucks deliver fuel to service stations every 2.4 days on average. Trucks also deliver fuel for trains, ships, and airplanes.

Health: Trucks keep pharmacies and hospitals stocked

Shelter: Trucks haul 92% of wood products and deliver materials to construction sites.  Cement must arrive within 1-2 hours.

Electricity. 39% of electricity is generated by coal, which is delivered by train (71%) and truck (14%).

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) looked at 12  urban supply chains. I’ve broken out a few of them by each leg of the journey goods move to show  how important trucks are.

  • T This leg depends completely on trucks
  • t Trucks and other transport modes used
  • - Trucks played no role

Urban Wholesale Food Supply Chain Exhibit A-3

T         Multiple Warehouse Market. 18 Wheeler TRUCKS deliver food from airports, seaports, and regional vendors.

t           Multiple Warehouse Market. 18 Wheeler TRUCKS  and rail deliver food from extra regional vendors

T         Retail outlets & Institutions, Purveyors & Jobbers, Grocers & Restaurants. All of these businesses receive food from the Multiple Warehouse Market by 18 Wheeler TRUCKS and smaller TRUCKS & VANS

Supermarket Grocery Supply Chain Exhibit A-4

T          Regional Distribution Center. TRUCKS deliver food from External Suppliers

T          Local Distribution Center. TRUCKS deliver food from External Suppliers and Regional Distribution Center.

         Local Retail Stores. TRUCKS deliver food from External Suppliers and Local Distribution Center.

Farm to Table: The Dairy Supply Chain (USDA)

T          Farm. TRUCKS deliver 65% of feed for cows  

T          Milk Processing Plant. Milk is transported in insulated tanker TRUCKS (avg of 5,800 gallons traveling 500 miles round-trip).

T          Retail stores, schools. Packaged milk is distributed by refrigerated TRUCKS.

Gasoline and petroleum Supply Chain Exhibit 3-1

t           Refinery: Crude petroleum from overseas arrives by ship or barge, Domestic crude by pipeline, and increasingly by train or TRUCK (i.e. North Dakota fracked oil).

t           Tank Farm: Refined oil (i.e. diesel or gasoline) arrive by ship, barge, or pipeline, ethanol by train, and additives by TRUCK

T         Gas Station: Diesel and gasoline arrive by TRUCK

Construction Materials (Cement) Supply Chain Exhibit 3-4

-           Regional Cement Consolidation Terminal. Raw materials (limestone, clay, aluminum & iron ore, gypsum powder, silica sand) arrive by train or barge from the Consolidated Cement plant.

t           Intermediate River Terminal. Raw materials (crushed stone, gravel, sand) arrive from a gravel pit by TRUCK or barge.

T         Many Metro Region Ready Mix Plants. TRUCKS deliver raw materials from the Terminals above to many ready mix plants.

T         Construction Sites (road, commercial, residential). Cement TRUCKS must reach these sites from local ready mix plants within one to two hours.


Next: When Trucks Stop Running, Civilization Stops Running.  


NAS National Academy of Sciences. 2012. NCFRP Report 14: Guidebook for Understanding Urban Goods Movement.

Notteboom, T. et al. 2009. Fuel surcharge practices of container shipping lines: Is it about cost recovery or revenue making?. Proceedings of the 2009 International Association of Maritime Economists (IAME) Conference, June, Copenhagen, Denmark

ORNL transportation energy data book Edition 31. July 2012. Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Tolliver, D, et al. October 2013. Comparing rail fuel efficiency with truck and waterway. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and environment. volume 24:69-75.

USDA. 2010. National Agricultural statistics service, agricultural statistics board.

USDOE. U.S. Department of Energy. 2008. Transportation Energy Data Book. 2008.

USDOT. U.S. Department of Transportation. 2009. National Transportation Statistics.



Posted in Agriculture, Supply Chains, Transportation, Trucks | 4 Comments