|The Week That Was
May 13, 2006
A closer look at hurricanes: Ocean temperatures are not the whole
story (Item #9).
Contemplating a run for the White House in 2008, former Vice President
Al Gore is positioning himself as an alternative to both Sen. Hillary
Clinton (D-NY) and the sleeping pill Ambien, aides to Mr. Gore confirmed
President Bush has made the welcome point that the U.S. needs "to
move beyond a petroleum-based economy," and has lent his support
to the need to develop energy from biomass, which refers to all bulk plant
material. This is popular with the public and also enjoys significant
support in Congress. Unfortunately, congressional subsidies for biomass
are driven by farm-state politics rather than by a technology-development
effort that might offer a practical liquid fuel alternative to oil. Meanwhile,
major oil and chemical companies are evaluating biomass and investors
are chasing biomass investment opportunities. But how much of this is
Biomass can be divided into two classes: food-crop and cellulosic. Natural
enzymes can easily break down food-crop biomass such as corn to simple
sugars, and ferment these sugars to ethanol. Cellulosic biomass -- which
includes agricultural residues from food crops, wood and crops such as
switch grass -- cannot easily be "digested" by natural enzymes.
Today, we use corn to produce ethanol in an automobile fuel known as
"gasohol" -- 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. Generous federal
and state subsidies, largely in the form of exemption from gasoline taxes
for gasohol, explain the growth of its use; in 2005, over four billion
gallons of ethanol were used in gasohol out of a total gasoline pool of
120 billion gallons. Politicians from corn-states and other proponents
of renewable energy support this federal subsidy, but most energy experts
believe using corn to make ethanol is not effective in the long run because
the net amount of oil saved by gasohol use is minimal.
In the U.S., cultivation of corn is highly energy-intensive and a significant
amount of oil and natural gas is used in growing, fertilizing and harvesting
it. Moreover, there is a substantial energy requirement -- much of it
supplied by diesel or natural gas -- for the fermentation and distillation
process that converts corn to ethanol. These petroleum inputs must be
subtracted when calculating the net amount of oil that is displaced by
the use of ethanol in gasohol. While there is some quarreling among experts,
it is clear that it takes two-thirds of a gallon of oil to make a gallon
equivalent of ethanol from corn. Thus one gallon of ethanol used in gasohol
displaces perhaps one-third of a gallon of oil or less.
A federal tax credit of 10 cents per gallon on gasohol, therefore, costs
the taxpayer a hefty $120 per barrel of oil displaced cost. Surely it
is worthwhile to look for cheaper ways to eliminate oil.
The biotech approach, by contrast, seeks to produce new enzymes that
will break down the difficult-to-digest cellulosic feedstock into simple
sugars that can be fermented into ethanol or other liquid biofuels products.
This approach merits genuine enthusiasm, especially as one can imagine
engineering an organism to produce enzymes that (a) break down the cellulosic
material, as well as (b) more efficiently ferment the sugars into ethanol.
Realizing this exciting prospect will not be easy. Many hurdles must be
overcome: Biotech experts need to assemble the gene "cassette"
and the organisms, and talented engineers need to demonstrate a cost-effective
process. Most importantly, an integrated bioengineering effort is required
to develop a process that: reduces the harsh pretreatment required to
dissolve the solid cellulosic feedstock; increases the concentration of
ethanol that is tolerated by the enzymes; and achieves an efficient process
to separate the ethanol from the product liquor.
Success will require a sustained research effort; it is too early to
estimate the production costs of this method, because process conditions
are unknown. However, the expected fossil energy inputs for cellulosic
biomass will be much less than that of gasohol, because the energy cost
for cultivation is less, and because the portion of the cellulosic material
not converted to ethanol can be burned to provide process heat -- thus
substantially lowering the implied cost of federal tax subsidies per barrel
of oil displaced.
I will be astonished, but delighted, if the cost of ethanol or other
biomass-derived chemicals proves to be less than $40 per barrel of its
oil equivalent, and if large-scale production can be accomplished in six
As for the land required to support significant biofuel production from
a dedicated energy crop, switch grass offers a basis for estimation. It
grows rapidly, with an expected harvest one or two years after planting.
Ignoring crop rotation, an acre under cultivation will produce five to
10 tons of switch grass annually, which in turn provides 50 to 100 gallons
of ethanol per ton of biomass. Thus the land requirement needed to displace
one million barrels of oil per day (about 10% of U.S. oil imports projected
by 2025), is 25 million acres (or 39,000 square miles). This is roughly
3% of the crop, range and pasture land that the Department of Agriculture
classifies as available in the U.S. I conclude that we can produce ethanol
from cellulosic biomass sufficient to displace one to two million barrels
of oil per day in the next couple of decades, but not much more. This
is a significant contribution, but not a long-term solution to our oil
Rising real prices of oil and natural gas reflect in part the progressive
decline in low-cost reserves, and signal the wisdom of preparing now for
a long transition from our petroleum-based economy. Almost certainly,
future economies will exploit all possible technology options for replacing
petroleum-based liquid fuels, especially technologies that do not produce
net carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas. Biomass should, properly,
be considered along with nuclear power and coal conversion with carbon
capture and sequestration as important options for future energy supply.
Mr. Deutch, director of energy research and undersecretary of Energy
in the Carter administration, and director of the CIA and deputy secretary
of Defense in the first Clinton administration, is a professor of chemistry
Arizona Congressman John Shadegg is the first politician of note to propose
a good idea in response to increased energy costs: the suspension of outrageously
high tariffs on imported ethanol, says the Wall Street Journal.
The intent is to offset some of the gas price hikes that Congress has
caused via the ethanol mandate it passed last year. That requirement --
that drivers use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2012 -- is
currently helping to increase the cost of gas, since ethanol is in short
Shadegg's bill would suspend the taxes on imported ethanol until 2007.
Not only would this result in a new flow of ethanol in a tight market,
it would give the gas industry time to prepare its infrastructure to handle
new domestic ethanol requirements, explains the Journal.
One irony of the current gas panic is that big oil companies are being
pilloried for their profits, but domestic ethanol producers get a pass.
Yet the ethanol makers receive more government subsidies and are responsible
for far more of the current gasoline price spike. Congress doesn't have
to bash ethanol makers; all it has to do is allow more foreign supply,
which will do more to reduce gasoline prices more quickly than any other
single idea, says the Journal.
Source: Editorial, "A Good Gas Idea," Wall Street Journal,
May 8, 2006
Few are the subjects on which you can exhibit in public an abject, sub-protozoan
stupidity without fear of damage to your reputation. Gasoline is surely
a miracle commodity. Yet it should be bracing for politicians, the American
people and the press that the only sensible opinion they're hearing on
$3 gasoline is coming from a reviled, overpaid energy executive, namely
Exxon's Rex Tillerson.
Yes, he tells audience after audience, the world will depend on hydrocarbons
as a primary energy source for decades to come. "It is true that
the age of 'easy oil' is over. What many fail to realize is that it has
been over for decades. Our industry constantly operates at the edge of
technical possibility, constantly developing and applying new technologies
to make those possibilities a reality," he told a group in Washington
Doubters might consult a new book by energy economist Mark Jaccard, entitled
"Sustainable Fossil Fuels," winner of Canada's Donner Prize.
He argues that hydrocarbons, in the form of oil, gas and coal, exist in
such abundance, the challenge of technology is how to burn them more cleanly,
not how to survive without them.
The closest Mr. Tillerson comes to a prediction is that, with all these
fossil hydrocarbons in stock, technology will allow the world to consume
a growing, rather than shrinking, volume of fuel at a price users are
willing to pay. This puts him at odds with the "peak oil" theorists,
but rests on the defensible proposition that the future will be much like
the past. What the future price will be, Mr. Tillerson doesn't vouchsafe.
Exxon is sticking to its corporate discipline of investing in oil projects
only if they'll pay an adequate return at an oil price much lower than
today's. And since the company handsomely leads its peers on return on
capital, its analysis of industry economics must be pretty good.
To raise the most discordant question of all: Why is $3 gasoline a "crisis"
anyway? The fluctuations of gasoline are in line with normal experience,
which is that commodity prices are volatile. The price chart for gasoline
over any number of years doesn't look much different from the price chart
for corn, aluminum, orange juice, etc.
An even better question right now is: How can the forces that require
Mr. Tillerson not to speak idiocy on the subject of gas prices be harnessed
to our political culture, where the opposite incentive is sadly evident?
Look to a non-phony crisis, that of the welfare state. With their usual
dourness, the Social Security and Medicare trustees came out with their
annual report last week, and no demographic and fiscal miracles have transpired
since last year. These programs would have to consume three-quarters of
all projected federal taxes by 2040, up from 40% today, to keep their
promises to beneficiaries.
Mr. Tillerson has the stock market looking over his shoulder at every
moment, forcing him to adopt the intensive realism that usually prevails
when people have their own money on the line. When Americans finally must
look daily to the stock market rather than the government as guardian
of their retirement, their appetite for fantasies and demagoguery on bread-and-butter
issues like gas prices will decline too. The single biggest advance for
self-government since the invention of literacy will be liberating voters
from the infantilizing illusion that somebody else can provide for their
Automotive equipment maker Delphi will opt for this trial-tested carbon
dioxide air-conditioning system, if more experimental hydrofluorocarbon
refrigerants don't pan out. (Photo courtesy of Delphi.)
In the 1990s, air conditioning suppliers switched from the chlorofluorocarbon
Freon to an equally troublesome hydrofluorocarbon called R-134a; while
easy on the ozone, R-134a is a greenhouse gas that's 1,300 times more
potent than CO2.
The impact has been most acute in automotive applications, where refrigerants
often leak out. Indeed, by 2010, such leakage will contribute more than
4 percent of the total climate change impact from motor vehicles. Add
in the extra fuel consumption to run the AC, and AC's share rises to 7
Little surprise, then, that the European Union decided this January 31
to begin phasing out the use of R-134a in new-model cars beginning in
2011, and that regulators in California are preparing to follow suit.
Until this spring, the most likely replacement looked to be novel high-pressure
systems employing, ironically, CO2 as the refrigerant. Behr GmbH -- Europe's
leading AC supplier for cars -- announced last month that they would begin
selling CO2-based systems ahead of the EU's 2011 deadline.
But Behr's competitors, such as Troy, MI-based Delphi and Germany's Robert
Bosch GmbH, have been backing away from CO2 since February, when DuPont
and Honeywell unveiled new hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants that may be
clean enough to squeak by the regulators. According to the chemical companies,
the new kinds of hydrofluorocarbons are no more than 150 more potent as
greenhouse gases than CO2 -- the limit set by the EU for auto refrigerants
after 2011. What's more, these refrigerants can be dropped into existing
AC equipment. "The prospect of having a new drop-in refrigerant that
would satisfy the 2011 legislation is incredible -- it's enormous,"
says Stefan Glober, director of engineering for Delphi's thermal and interior
Many questions remain for both options, however. The new hydrofluorocarbon-based
refrigerants offered by DuPont and Honeywell must complete a host of long-term
tests, including for the stability of the compounds under heavy use and
for toxicity. That could take at least three years. And it's unknown how
much the new refrigerants will cost to manufacture. This means that AC
manufacturers must also continue to develop their new CO2 systems. "These
alternatives have appeared relatively late. That's the dilemma we're in
right now," says Glober.
The CO2 systems have their own hurdles. One is detecting leaks: cheap,
effective CO2 sensors don't exist yet. Another is cost. And it's here
that Behr and its competitors part ways. Glober says the industry consensus
is that the first CO2 systems will sell for €150-200 more than conventional
AC systems, doubling their costs. Behr, in contrast, says it will be able
to keep down the added cost to less than €100 in the first-generation
system and half that by 2015 -- sums that the firm predicts will be justified
by higher performance.
Carbon prices crashed in late April after it emerged that five EU states
had emitted less carbon in 2005 than they had been allocated under the
EU emissions trading scheme. Still in its infancy, the only certainty
for Europe's fledgling carbon market is that short-term price volatility
will continue, as Datamonitor's Paul Stewart explains...
EU carbon credits collapsed from record highs of over E30 to around E11
per metric tonne in just one week after the Czech Republic, Estonia, France,
the Netherlands and Sweden all reported lower than anticipated emissions
The EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS) is the key mechanism with which
Brussels intends to get Europe on track to meet its Kyoto target. The
extreme price volatility witnessed in April 2006 has, however, prompted
a skeptical review of the robustness of the original phase-I emission
quotas, raising concerns that countries over-allocated in their national
allocation plans for the period 2005 to 2007.
In reality, the market has reacted violently to a limited amount of data
with only 28% of the total volume included in the scheme having verified
against actual 2005 emission levels. The trigger for massive carbon price
losses was the fact that countries such as the Czech Republic, France
and the Netherlands had emitted far less than traders had anticipated.
Conversely, news that Spain had emitted 10 million tonnes more than it
had been allocated also failed to stem heavy losses purely because the
market had expected a larger deficit from one of Europe's fastest-growing
The European Commission (EC) is rightly concerned that large price swings
can undermine the effectiveness of the scheme in financing carbon abatement
investment - reportedly emailing all member states to request they withhold
their verified emissions data until a complete 25-country assessment is
released on May 15, 2006. On this date the market will also see the 2005
emissions of Germany, Italy and the UK, who combined account for around
44% of the EU's ETS quota.
In the short-term, Europe's carbon market remains an immature and volatile
trading environment with traders inconsistently shifting their focus from
fuel market fundamentals to regulatory drivers. Longer-term, however,
the EU-ETS must be in deficit if Europe is to meet its collective UN-mandated
Kyoto target. Ultimately, a potential excess of allowances in phase I
will only heighten pressure on the EC to be more stringent with its phase
True, it needs close reading; and true, it comes from an obscure and
mostly powerless institution. But it's possible to detect subtle shifts
in the EU's position on the Kyoto Protocol.
In an 'Opinion' of 28 April 2006, on the effects of international agreements
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the industrial change processes
in Europe, the European Economic and Social Committee timidly opens the
door for an overhaul of Europe's climate policy, especially its CO2 emission
The opening sentence is still funny: "Climate change is a unique
problem that humanity has never before encountered in modern times."
I always figured that climate change is of all times. It is the norm,
not the exception. And mankind has coped with it pretty successfully so
"Further policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must take into
account all the economic parameters. If not, those states which have ratified
the Kyoto protocol run the risk of having some of their manufacturing
move to developed economies which are still hesitating to sign the protocol
or to developing countries which are not yet subject to any quota obligations
under it. This could result in economic losses and weakened competitiveness,
without producing the desired global reduction in emissions."
So true. One can only wonder why nobody thought of it before.
And then another pinch of realism:
Surprise, surprise! Is this the beginning of the recognition that there
is a gap between the greenhouse gas reduction rhetoric of EU member countries
and actual results?
It also seems that the EU has finally woken up to the outcome of the
G-8 Gleneagles Summit and the Montreal Climate Conference. There it became
clear that the major economic powers in the world were not willing to
follow the EU's climate policy of cap-and-trade. Nevertheless, the 'Opinion'
still makes an obligatory reference to "future negotiations":
"These negotiations must lead in the future to an acceptable way
of continuing the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2012
- one that involves all the economically developed countries and the prime
producers of emissions in the developing countries as a whole and especially
those where development is rapid."
But subsequently reality sets in:
Again, so true! Again, why did nobody think of it before?
And finally another surprise. How often have we heard "the science
is settled" and "all scientists agree"? Apparently the
EESC is not so sure any more, because it concludes:
More likely the steep fall in price of carbon credits, from a peak of €31 to 11 and maybe soon to zero, means no more money in the Kyoto Scam. Much more gain in the huge subsidies for Wind farms and construction of a Grid for Europe.
The big Energy Companies[BEC] cannot jump on this bandwagon quick enough. And Climate Alarmists think BECs are financing climate sceptics. Why do they get everything so wrong?
Meanwhile, Eurobusiness is finding it hard to compete in a global market. Since cheap energy facilitates growth, punitive fuel taxes in Europe may be the last straw.
But global competitors need not worry. This will take decades to percolate
down the layers of Eco-Freak bureaucracy dominant in EU, National, Regional
and Local government -- never mind the caring, moralizing Media.
8. Electronic smog?
The evidence - which is being taken seriously by national and international bodies and authorities - suggests that almost everyone is being exposed to a new form of pollution with countless sources in daily use in every home.
Two official Department of Health reports on the smog are to be presented to ministers next month, and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has recently held the first meeting of an expert group charged with developing advice to the public on the threat.
The UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) calls the electronic smog "one of the most common and fastest growing environmental influences" and stresses that it "takes seriously" concerns about the health effects. It adds that "everyone in the world" is exposed to it and that "levels will continue to increase as technology advances".
Wiring creates electrical fields, one component of the smog, even when nothing is turned on. And all electrical equipment - from TVs to toasters - give off another one, magnetic fields. The fields rapidly decrease with distance but appliances such as hair dryers and electric shavers, used close to the head, can give high exposures. Electric blankets and clock radios near to beds produce even higher doses because people are exposed to them for many hours while sleeping.
Radio frequency fields - yet another component - are emitted by microwave ovens, TV and radio transmitters, mobile phone masts and phones themselves, also used close to the head.
The WHO says that the smog could interfere with the tiny natural electrical currents that help to drive the human body. Nerves relay signals by transmitting electric impulses, for example, while the use of electrocardiograms testify to the electrical activity of the heart.
Campaigners have long been worried about exposure to fields from lines carried by electric pylons but, until recently, their concerns were dismissed, even ridiculed, by the authorities.
But last year a study by the official National Radiological Protection Board concluded that children living close to the lines are more likely to get leukaemia, and ministers are considering whether to stop any more homes being built near them. The discovery is causing a large-scale reappraisal of the hazards of the smog.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer - part of the WHO and the leading international organisation on the disease - classes the smog as a "possible human carcinogen". And Professor David Carpenter, dean of the School of Public Health at the State University of New York, told The Independent on Sunday last week that it was likely to cause up to 30 per cent of all childhood cancers. A report by the California Health Department concludes that it is also likely to cause adult leukaemia, brain cancers and possibly breast cancer and could be responsible for a 10th of all miscarriages.
Professor Denis Henshaw, professor of human radiation effects at Bristol University, says that "a huge and substantive body of evidence indicates a range of adverse health effects". He estimates that the smog causes some 9,000 cases of depression.
Perhaps strangest of all, there is increasing evidence that the smog causes some people to become allergic to electricity, leading to nausea, pain, dizziness, depression and difficulties in sleeping and concentrating when they use electrical appliances or go near mobile phone masts. Some are so badly affected that they have to change their lifestyles.
While not yet certain how it is caused, both the WHO and the HPA accept
that the condition exists, and the UN body estimates that up to three
in every 100 people are affected by it.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., May 9 (AScribe Newswire) -- New research calls
into question the linkage between major Atlantic hurricanes and global
warming. That is one of the conclusions from a University of Virginia
study to appear in the May 10, 2006 issue of the journal Geophysical Research
In recent years, a large number of severe Atlantic hurricanes have fueled
a debate as to whether global warming is responsible. Because high sea-surface
temperatures fuel tropical cyclones, this linkage seems logical. In fact,
within the past year, several hurricane researchers have correlated basin-wide
warming trends with increasing hurricane severity and have implicated
a greenhouse-warming cause.
But unlike these prior studies, the U.Va. climatologists specifically
examined water temperatures along the path of each storm, providing a
more precise picture of the tropical environment involved in each hurricane's
development. They found that increasing water temperatures can account
for only about half of the increase in strong hurricanes over the past
25 years; therefore the remaining storminess increase must be related
to other factors.
"It is too simplistic to only implicate sea surface temperatures
in the dramatic increase in the number of major hurricanes," said
lead author Patrick Michaels, U.Va. professor of environmental sciences
and director of the Virginia Climatology Office.
For a storm to reach the status of a major hurricane, a very specific
set of atmospheric conditions must be met within the region of the storm's
development, and only one of these factors is sufficiently high sea-surface
temperatures. The authors found that the ultimate strength of a hurricane
is not directly linked to the underlying water temperatures. Instead,
they found that a temperature threshold, 89 degrees Fahrenheit, must be
crossed before a weak tropical cyclone has the potential to become a monster
hurricane. Once the threshold is crossed, water temperature is no longer
an important factor. "At that point, other factors take over, such
as the vertical wind profile, and atmospheric temperature and moisture
gradients," Michaels said.
While there has been extensive recent discussion about whether or not
human-induced global warming is currently playing a role in the increased
frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, Michaels downplays this
impact, at least for the current climate.
"Some aspects of the tropical environment have evolved much differently
than they were expected to under the assumption that only increasing greenhouse
gases were involved. This leads me to believe that natural oscillations
have also been responsible for what we have seen," Michaels said.
But what if sea-surface temperatures continue to rise into the future,
if the world continues to warm from an enhancing greenhouse effect? "In
the future we may expect to see more major hurricanes," Michaels
said, "but we don't expect the ones that do form to be any stronger
than the ones that we have seen in the past."
Whereas there is a significant relationship between overall sea-surface temperature (SST) and tropical cyclone intensity, the relationship is much less clear in the upper range of SST normally associated with these storms. There, we find a step-like, rather than a continuous, influence of SST on cyclone strength, suggesting that there exists a SST threshold that must be exceeded before tropical cyclones develop into major hurricanes. Further, we show that the SST influence varies markedly over time, thereby indicating that other aspects of the tropical environment are also critically important for tropical cyclone intensification. These findings highlight the complex nature of hurricane development and weaken the notion of a simple cause-and-effect relationship between rising SST and stronger Atlantic hurricanes.
Reference: Michaels, P. J., P. C. Knappenberger, and R. E. Davis,
2006. Sea-surface temperatures and tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin.
Geophysical Research Letters, 33, doi:10.1029/2006GL025757.