Monday, April 29, 2013

Charles C. Mann and the Methane Ice

Daughter Number Three's icon, the queen of spades, with her hair on fire
If it wasn't almost a bad joke, I'd say that Charles C. Mann's new article in The Atlantic is one of those hair-on-fire pieces of writing. Hair-on-fire because it made my brain spark from one association after another, many times in reversal of the previous one until it almost hurt. And bad joke because it's about flammable methane ice, which has good prospects for becoming a new, very abundant energy source.

Did you know that fracking has an energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 87, according to Mann? EROEI is the number of barrels of oil (equivalent) derived from a source, compared to one barrel of oil used in acquiring it. By comparison, conventional oil's EROEI is 12 - 18, and tar sands oil is a dismal 4 - 7. (Corn ethanol's is close to 1. Yes, it's that stupid.) No one knows what the EROEI of methane ice is yet, but in casual searching, I've seen ones as high as 30 and as low as 3. I wonder if anyone really has any idea at this point.

And that doesn't even deal with the most obvious problem: that we can't burn all this fuel, even if we can get to it at a price someone wants to pay, because if we do we'll raise global temperatures to unlivable or at least extremely unpleasant, society-destabilizing levels. Natural gas is cleaner-burning than other forms of fossil fuel, but that doesn't mean it's clean. It puts out half as much CO2 as coal, but that's still almost three times as much CO2 as there was methane to start with. And if the methane doesn't get burned, but instead leaks into the atmosphere -- as happens during the extraction process -- it's 20 to 30 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2!

I'll leave you in Charles Mann's capable hands to experience your own hair-roasting, but if you don't have time right now for the whole thing, here are some choice quotes.
“Methane hydrate could be a new energy revolution,” Christopher Knittel, a professor of energy economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. “It could help the world while we reduce greenhouse gases. Or it could undermine the economic rationale for investing in renewable, carbon-free energy around the world”—just as abundant shale gas from fracking has already begun to undermine it in the United States. “The one path is a boon. The other—I’ve used words like catastrophe.” He paused; I thought I detected a sigh. “I wouldn’t bet on us making the right decisions.”
When gasoline supplies drop, TV news reporters like to wring their hands at the drivers mobbing the corner Exxon. But the motorists’ panic reflects a basic truth: economic growth and energy use have marched in lockstep for generations. Between 1900 and 2000, global energy consumption rose roughly 17-fold, the University of Manitoba environmental scientist Vaclav Smil has calculated, while economic output rose 16-fold—“as close a link as one may find in the unruly realm of economic affairs.” Petroleum has wreaked all kinds of social and environmental havoc, but a steady supply of oil and gas remains just as central to the world’s economic well-being as it was in Churchill’s day. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the United States has experienced 11 recessions since the end of the Second World War. All but one were associated with spikes in energy costs—specifically, abrupt jumps in the price of oil.

Because of fracking, natural gas is currently cheap in the U.S., though not in Europe. It's supplanting coal in power plants, and U.S. CO2 emissions have dropped accordingly.
The U.S. coal industry has taken to complaining of a “war on coal.” But the economic hit has been less than one would expect; U.S. coal exports, mainly to Europe, almost doubled from 2009 to 2011. In the sort of development that irresistibly attracts descriptors like ironic, Germany, often touted as an environmental model for its commitment to solar and wind power, has expanded its use of coal, and as a result is steadily increasing its carbon-dioxide output. Unlike Americans, Europeans can’t readily switch to natural gas; Continental nations, which import most of their natural gas, agreed to long-term contracts that tie its price to the price of oil, now quite high. “It’s like someone said, ‘We’ll sell you all the tea you want, based on the price of coffee,’ ” Michael Lynch, the energy consultant, told me. “And you said, ‘What a great idea! I’ll lock myself into it for decades.’ ” He laughed. “Truly, you can’t make this stuff up.”
The results in [oil-producing] nations would be turbulent [if the bottom falls out of the oil market in the wake of crystal methane supplies]. Petroleum revenues, if they are large, exercise curious and malign effects on their recipients. In 1959, the Netherlands found petroleum on the shores of the North Sea. Money gurgled into the country. To general surprise, the flood of cash led to an economic freeze. Afterward, economists realized that salaries in the new petroleum industry were so high that nobody wanted to work anywhere else. To keep employees, companies in other parts of the economy had to jack up wages, in turn driving up costs. Meanwhile, the surge of foreign money into the Netherlands raised the exchange rate. Soaring costs and currency made it harder for Dutch firms to compete; manufacturing and agriculture faltered; unemployment climbed, except in the oil industry. The windfall led to stagnation—a phenomenon that petroleum cognoscenti now call “Dutch disease.”

Some scholars today doubt how much the Netherlands was actually affected by Dutch disease. Still, the general point is widely accepted. A good modern economy is like a roof with many robust supporting pillars, each a different economic sector. In Dutch-disease scenarios, oil weakens all the pillars but one—the petroleum industry, which bloats steroidally.

Worse, that remaining pillar becomes so big and important that in almost every nation, the government takes it over. (“Almost,” because there is an exception: the United States, the only one of the 62 petroleum-producing nations that allows private entities to control large amounts of oil and gas reserves.) Because the national petroleum company, with its gush of oil revenues, is the center of national economic power, “the ruler typically puts a loyalist in charge,” says Michael Ross, a UCLA political scientist and the author of The Oil Curse (2012). “The possibilities for corruption are endless.” Governments dip into the oil kitty to reward friends and buy off enemies. Sometimes the money goes to simple bribes; in the early 1990s, hundreds of millions of euros from France’s state oil company, Elf Aquitaine, lined the pockets of businessmen and politicians at home and abroad. Often, oil money is funneled into pharaonic development projects: highways and hotels, designer malls and desalination plants. Frequently, it is simply unaccounted for. How much of Venezuela’s oil wealth Hugo Ch├ívez hijacked for his own political purposes is unknown, because his government stopped publishing the relevant income and expenditure figures. Similarly, Ross points out, Saddam Hussein allocated more than half the government’s funds to the Iraq National Oil Company; nobody has any idea what happened to the stash, though, because INOC never released a budget. (Saddam personally directed the nationalization of Iraqi oil in 1972, then leveraged his control of petroleum revenues to seize power from his rivals.)

Then there was this point, which was like something right out of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature:
In a working paper, Michael Ross and a colleague, Erik Voeten of Georgetown University, argue that the regular global flow of petroleum, the biggest commodity in world trade, is also a powerful stabilizing force. Nations dislike depending on international oil, but they play nice and obey the rules because they don’t want to be cut off. By contrast, countries with plenty of energy reserves feel free to throw their weight around. They are “less likely than other states to sign major treaties or join intergovernmental organizations; and they often defy global norms—on human rights, the expropriation of foreign companies, and the financing of foreign terrorism or rebellions.” The implication is sobering: an energy-independent planet would be a world of fractious, autonomous actors, none beholden to the others, with even less cooperation than exists today.

I love this analogy:
To ask utilities to take in large amounts of solar power—electricity generated by hundreds or thousands of small installations, many on neighborhood roofs and lawns, whose output is affected by clouds—is like asking a shipping firm to replace its huge, professionally staffed container ships with squadrons of canoes paddled by random adolescents. Other renewables can be more reliable than power from the sun, to be sure, but all are costlier than petroleum and hard to fit into today’s grid. Natural gas, from this point of view, seems like the perfect stopgap.
The clash occurs when renewables are ready for prime time—and natural gas is still hanging around like an old and dirty but reliable car, still cheap to produce and use, after shale fracking is replaced globally by undersea mining of methane hydrate....

True, there are ways of buying time. Scientists have experimented, for instance, with injecting carbon dioxide into methane hydrate; for complex chemical reasons, the crystals “prefer” the carbon dioxide, taking it in and expelling natural gas. If undersea methane hydrate could be mined in this fashion, the sequestered carbon dioxide, forever imprisoned in ice beneath the waves, would offset some emissions. This new kind of carbon sequestration could ameliorate some of the long-term environmental damage that widespread global use of cheap natural gas from methane hydrate will do. But even if such techniques work in the way researchers hope, the infrastructure transformation ahead is daunting in scale and scope. It’s like setting up a second Industrial Revolution, only all over the world and in one-third the time.

And his conclusion:
Nobody can predict the future, but it is dumbfounding to hear left and right alike bemoaning the “reality” that society cannot change, particularly at a time when both sides are bemoaning the consequences of convulsive social change. Natural gas, both from fracking and in methane hydrate, gives us a way to cut back on carbon emissions while we work toward a more complete solution. It could be a useful crutch. But only if we have the wit to know that we will soon have to lay it down.


A response to Mann's article, also from The Atlantic: We Don't Need Exotic Fuels to Cook the Earth, Coal Will Do.

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