Fat, Oil Rich, and Comfortable : but not for long

April 23, 2010

Halfway through the latest leaders debate, I got an uncomfortable feeling of detachment. It was when they were asked about passion in politics. For some years, there has been soul searching about the declining turnout rate in elections, and widespread feeling that “they are all the same”. The problem I think is that nothing much is wrong in our lives. There is nothing really big to argue about, no sides to take.

A thousand years ago it was the Church versus the Empire. Five hundred years ago it was freedom of belief. A hundred years ago it was the liberation of the working man. In my youth this titanic struggle was still rattling the world if not shaking it. But thats all over. Socialism is a spent force. We are all rich fat and comfortable; we have TVs, fridges and iPhones; so whats the problem ? If miners are not starving, and no children are being sent up chimneys, and we have universal healthcare (ahem…), nobody cares too much. Even if you feel that voting is a civic responsibility, its hard deciding. You can’t decide by asking “am I one of them or one of us ?”. You have to look at all the damned policies and take an average.

What really matters now ? The rising tide of irrationality ? Well thats scary, but I think we’ll be ok. Climate change ? Well, yes but … as I argued here , maybe its irrelevant because civilisation will collapse soon anyway when the oil runs out . Old chum Alan Penny wrote a strong rebuttal of my pessimistic mutterings, but now I am getting worried again…

As explained in a recent Guardian article, in a Financial Times blog, and this posting in Counter Currents, the US military and the UK government are starting to understand that peak oil may be an imminent reality. This article argues that the US Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, has felt this for some years. So it seems that privately the powers that be are starting to take this very seriously. But publicly ? Why isn’t Nick Clegg saying “OK, relax on Trident. We got bigger problems…”

A crunch may be coming. Not only will oil run out, but uranium too, and phosphorous, and so food.

As Tolstoy said, what then must we do ?

Reading list
Peak Oil

The Oil Drum

Peak generation

Peak oil on wikipedia

Canossa revisited : Science, State, and Religion

March 31, 2010

I expect you all saw @ProfBrianCox on @Wossy. Thats Twitterspeak for Brian Cox on the Jonathan Ross show . I think. New at this stuff. Anyway, it was j.good. Everybody loved the will-he won’t-he finger in the liquid Nitrogen thing. Rather more Dr Bunhead than Carl Sagan if you know what I mean, but hey that’s good. My favourite moment was a little more serious. Ross suddenly asked Cox whether he was atheist, religious, agnostic or what. Brian paused slightly and then stated that personally he was comfortable living with uncertainty, and that was what science gave you. Well, spot on, but of course he didn’t actually answer the question. Part of me thought this was chickening out, and part of me thought it was very wise. It didn’t rule out Einstein style cosmic pantheism, and didn’t criticise anybody’s personal choices, but left you to work out for yourself that religion is a crutch you don’t need. But do we need to take sides ? A year in the USA reminded me that millions of people believe that science is the enemy of religion; not because science is intrinsically evil, but because it is part of a secular state which limits their freedom to teach their children what they wish.

My Christmas reading included Millenium by Tom Holland. Set at a time when people were deeply religious and thought the world was about to end, the central story is about the battle for authority between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. The turning point was when the excommunicated Henry IV crawled to the castle at Canossa in 1077 to do penance. Pope Clement kept him waiting outside the gate, in his hair shirt, for several days before admitting him to an audience. This established papal supremacy. At least thats what Mr Holland told me.

I thought of this as the Catholic Church child abuse scandal kept rolling on. The jaw dropping thing is not that priests did those awful things, but that the Church felt it was above the law, and had no need to hand the guilty over to Caesar. For a while it looked like Pope Benedict would have his Canossa-in-reverse in Ireland, as the pressure grew for him to publicly grovel. But the result was still an expression of regret for the crimes committed by others, and sympathy for the pain felt by victims – not an apology for covering everything up.

Meanwhile it seems, the same US states that legislate for a requirement to teach religious scepticism concerning evolution, also wish to insist on scepticism concerning global warming. (See this NY Times article.) Why ? Does the Bible say that changes in climate are not anthropogenic ? Don’t think so. I think its because in Christian minds, science is at the core of a rational secular state which wishes to squash their culture and remove their freedom to believe. Even our academic humanist colleagues think there is an unhealthy bias towards the state funding of science.

Right now many physicists are tempted to see the State as a barbarian force intent on squeezing out the pursuit of truth and replacing it with the pursuit of gold, even making the production of gold the test of value for scientific activity. Well we all know the dangers, but its really only fine tuning. The religious zealots are right. We are at the heart of the military industrial complex.  Government knows the value of science. Since radar and the bomb, we get lots of money. You think thats because the goverment think we are fine men and women and deserve to have an undisturbed life of enquiry ?   We are public servants. Our paymasters want as much as they can for their money. Whats more, they are not obliged to see science as a single block.

The Government is minded to appoint a Minister for Life Sciences. Now stop obsessing about UKSA and worry about that instead.

Minister for Space anyone ?

Guest post : Oil in 2050

November 11, 2008

I have been having an interesting debate with old chum Alan Penny about whether my blog posts on the subject of energy and oil were too alarmist. Eventually I says “How about a guest post ? Have your own say in public.” Alan has risen to the challenge … So … here we go. Ladles and Jellyspoons, I have the honour to preezent to yew, the first, the original, the very alpha of guest posts on Andy’s Blog;  I give you .. Dr  —  Alan  — Penny.

Oil in 2050

Over the next fifty or so years there will be a smooth transition away from our oil-based economy to one based on
 nuclear, coal and renewable energy sources. Or will it all go wrong? This post argues that things will go well.

As oil rose through $96/bbl, $115/bbl to $132/bbl, Andy blogged about the supply problem on Nov 11, Apr 24, and Jun 11, with phrases such as “The Oil Age: nearly
 over”, “Civilisation is about to crack”, and “We’re all going to hell in a handbasket”. Now that prices are falling 
again ($64/bbl today, Oct 29) this post explores the situation in some detail.

First of all here are some of the relevant factors to be aware of:

It’s no big deal

Oil is only a small part of the economy. In the US oil expenditure as a percentage of GDP fell from 5% in 1970 to 3% in 2000. In the UK it is an even
 smaller percentage.  Although the transformation of even 3% of an economy is a significant affair, oil is no big deal. 
Health care, for example, will be much more of a problem in the future.

Price of oil

In 2008 money, the price per barrel started out at $20 from 1880 to
1920 and then fell smoothly to $10 in 1970. It quadrupled to $40 in 1973, then doubled again to $80 in 1979, with an 
average price from 1973 to 1985 of about $60. It then fell again to $30 for 1985 to 2000, rising to $50 by 2005, and
 then surged up to $140 this July, and has now fallen to $65 in October.

World energy production and the uses of oil

World energy figures

Fuel Energy Known Years left
production (EJ/yr) reserves (ZJ)
Oil 180 8 44
Coal 120 290 263
Gas 110 6 57
Nuclear 30 1.3 44
Biomass 30
Hydro 15
Solar heat 3
Wind 2
Geothermal 1
Biofuels 1
Solar photovoltaic 0.2

(The ‘years left’ is at current consumption.)

Uses of petroleum
 products in the US, 2000

Use %
Cars 41
Trucks 13
Plastics, chemicals 10
Air passenger 7
Industrial processes 5
Heating and hot water 5
Oil refineries 3
Asphalt 3
Freight – water 3
Agriculture 2
Electricity 2
Other 6

(‘Other’ includes construction, military, rail and air freight, and recreational vehicles.)

Future supply

The ‘known reserves’ in the table are just that. New oil, coal, gas, uranium and thorium fields are being opened up, so 
the numbers for the reserves and the years left should increase.


Oil production and reserves have increased steadily over the years, but the amount of oil yet to be discovered is a
 matter of contention, with some claiming there is little left to find, and others saying there is lots more. Andy gave
 an example of this disagreement with the OECD’s International Energy Agency predicting that oil supply in 2030 will be
 up by 30% and the German Green Party pressure group Energy
Watch Group saying it will be down by

The most recent IEA report forecasts
 oil consumption in 2030 will be 106m bbl/day compared with the present 84m bbl/day, an 
increase of 20%.

Some estimates of new oil are in the 11 ZJ range, giving 60 more years supply. Then there are some 11 ZJ in oil-shales, which would be extractable on an oil price of
$50-$100/bbl. Taking the known, future and shale figures,together there could be 180 years of future supply.

In addition to this there are the prospect of ‘oil-from-coal’. Already South
 Africa gets some 28% of its fuel needs from this
 process, which is competitive when oil is at $50-$100/bbl. The extent to which large amounts of coal could be diverted 
from energy production is uncertain. Oil could also come from ‘second generation’ biofuels, but although this would be
 a renewable source it is uncertain that sufficient agriculture land could be used without leading to food shortages.


Estimates for the amount of new gas reserves are in the 10 ZJ range which would give an in total 120 years for gas.


Proven reserves of coal increased by 20% in the last 20 
years, and the IEA suggests that “additions to proven reserves will continue to occur”.


Nuclear becomes competitive for the generation of electricity at oil price levels in the $50-$100/bbl range. A discussion of nuclear fuel
 resources states that future discoveries will be about the same as proven ones. To this are to be added the use of
 thorium, and even the extraction of uranium from phospates and from sea water. Further advances in nuclear plant
 technology such as reprocessing and fast reactor would stretch reserves to thousands of years.


This month, Greenpeace and the European renewable industry pressure group the European Renewable Energy Council claimed that
 with substantial investment in hydro, biomass, solar and other renewables could increase ninefold by 2050 to 270
EJ/year, eliminating two-thirds of the need for oil, coal and gas at current consumption rates.

Future Oil Demand

Oil consumption has grown by 40% 
over the last 25 years. At this rate of increase oil demand would double by 2050. However although world population is 
expected to level off by 2050 at about 30% above present
 value the rate of increase of oil demand may well rise with the rapid industrialisation in China and India. China’s GDP
 is currently doubling every ten years, and such a rate if translated to oil demand would lead to an approximately 
fifteen-fold increase in oil demand by 2050.

However, as part of the response to higher oil prices and the problem of global warming, what Greenpeace describe as
”far reaching energy efficiency measures” could reduce demand considerably. An example of this is the current trend 
away from SUVs to more energy efficient cars, in response to the increase in the price of oil over the last 5 years.
With the current aims of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, there must be a substantial fall in oil demand relative to GDP growth.

Residual oil demand

20% of current oil production is used for chemical manufacturing and air and sea transport, where other energy sources
 cannot be a substitute. With economic growth one could expect these as for total oil demand to double by 2050 to a 
level near present day total demand. The larger increase in GDP discussed above would lead to an even greater 


With proven oil reserves at 44 years, and if consumption doubles, one might think we will be in trouble within the
 next 20-30 years. But positing a price of $50-$100/bbl, then new discoveries, shale oil, and oil-from-coal could result 
in perhaps a hundred years of total reserves, taking into account demand growth.  And oil at $50-$100/bbl is not a major
 economic drag, as we have already learnt over the last twenty years.  There is no immediate problem. Far reaching
 changes in lifestyles will not be needed to deal with oil depletion.

But a major problem could occur if, as seems likely, the GDP growth in developing nations such as China and India leads
 to a much larger oil demand.

But here global warming comes to the rescue. Oil demand should in fact decrease because of  the efforts to deal
 with global warming giving a growth in nuclear and renewables together with fuel efficiencies. Substantial investments 
in nuclear, clean coal, renewables and efficiencies are on their way. The UK government is slowly moving in the correct
 direction, and in the US Obama has the beginnings of the correct policies, although he does appear to be ambivalent about the nuclear component.
 It is possible that in 2050 oil will only be needed for the 20% of demand that cannot be substituted. This critical
 scenario will not depend solely on actions by Europe and the US, but mainly on actions by China, India and other
 developing nations.

By 2050 we should, if developing nations act sensibly, all be wealthier and healthier, following the course of the last 
three hundred years. However much we would like to return to the pre-1973 years of $10/bbl, we do not need to.

An aside on global warming

I am sceptical about the renewable energy lobby’s claim that increasing renewables with efficiency savings could meet
 the needs of that tripled or even fifteen-fold GDP together with the almost complete phasing out of oil, gas and coal
 use. There is a cute BBC calculator which shows how the UK
 could replace fossil fuels for electricity generation in 25 years with nuclear, yet using renewables would lead to much 
higher electricity prices. World-wide, it seems to me that only nuclear could be increased sufficiently to reach this 
goal and also to replace oil as the major source of energy for land transportation. A 20 to 100-fold increase in 
nuclear over the next forty years together with more realistic efficiency savings would suffice. And nuclear fuel 
reserves are good for some hundreds of years. The problem of nuclear waste disposal is not a problem. All we have to do
 is store it for a readily achievable two hundred years, when our descendants can with their advanced technology solve 
the problem. Our descendants will not thank us for wrecking the world economy by ignoring nuclear in order to solve the 
minor, for them, problem of nuclear waste storage. Perhaps an inclusive approach — nuclear, clean-coal, renewables and
 efficiencies will emerge as the optimum approach.


In addition to the links given in the text, these Wikipedia entries are informative:

Peak Gas, Natural_gas_proven_reserves,
Coal, Energy
consumption, Energy reserves, World_energy_resources_and_consumption,
Peak uranium, Sources of electricity in the

Alan Penny – 2008 October 29

The real reason why global warming doesn’t matter

March 14, 2007

Because energy disaster looms anyway. Pretty soon, one of three things will happen : one, we achieve a sustainable low energy culture; two, we solve all the worries of nuclear power and have a high energy lifestyle; or three, civilisation collapses and we revert to a mediaeval economy.

I watched the Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” and have been trawling the blogosphere for comment since. Reactions divide pretty evenly in two. One half is along the lines of “Completely convincing ! I always suspected global warming was a hoax and now its been proved !” and the other half, who say “Sigh. Where do I start explaining the mistakes ? And these guys are all marxists with a weird agenda anyway.” As a piece of agit-prop, it was superb. Beautifully made, clearly argued, with just enough emotion to engage you, but not so much you get suspicious. Although there were one or two semi-cranks interviewed, there was also an impressive list of real scientists. However, at least one of those has now complained that his views were misrepresented…

As an astronomer, the argument that the dominant factor in climate change is cloud cover variation caused by changes in solar cosmic ray flux is of course appealing. (There is a useful explanation here, and some informed criticism here) There is a small chance that this completely explains climate change, but mostly it just adds a systematic uncertainty, making it harder to estimate the correct magnitude of anthropogenic climate change. The C4 show mocked the “precautionary principle” but its correct; given how long the world economy supertanker takes to turn around, can we take the risk that its all an illusion ?

So now the scary bit. As the oil runs out, we may end up with catastrophically less energy consumption, and correspondingly less carbon production, and so avoid global warming and just have darkness, poverty, and misery instead.

So… when the question of when the hydrocarbon reserves will run out is another famously contentious issue of course. I am not a technical expert, but I did read an excellent popular book – “The End of Oil” by Paul Roberts. Coal may last somewhat longer, but it has to go eventually, and meanwhile we keep getting greedier …Roberts does a nice analysis of growing energy needs. With our current rate of energy consumption growth and population growth, and assuming that developing nations catch up with the West, but also allowing for continuing improvements in energy efficiency, Roberts estimates that by the year 2100 the world energy consumption will be 50 TW. (50 TeraWatts, or 50 times a million million Watts).

Decades before this the oil and coal will be running out or becoming unproductive to extract; and many years before this the increasingly difficulty of extraction will be leading to horrible international tensions.. this is starting now of course. So new energy sources must come to our rescue !! Biofuels, hydrogen, wave power, solar energy, wind farms .. the more the better !

But what Roberts, and most others, don’t point out is that there is a renewable bottom line : the solar constant. All renewables are driven by solar energy – plants are recycled sunlight, the wind is driven by solar heating, and so on. Hydrogen cells are just a storage mechanism. Something has to make the energy first. Hydrocarbons of course represent millions of years of accumulated sunlight stored up underground. Once they are used up, we can’t use more energy than is falling on the surface of the Earth. There are only two exceptions. The first is nuclear power. The second is geothermal energy. However the heat emerging from the entire land surface of the Earth is somewhat less than the current world energy consumption, so this will never be a big factor.

So how much sunlight is there ?

The total amount of solar radiation falling on the surface of the earth is roughly 1.7 x 10**17 Watts. Thats everything – all wavelengths, falling on the oceans, Antarctica, or whatever. How much can we use ? Half of this is reflected. We could maybe at most cover 1% of the Earth with photo-cells with 10% efficiency, or perhaps 10% with biofuel crops at 1% efficiency. All in all, in round terms we might get half of one thousandth of the above if we are lucky. Thats 85 TW max.

The astute reader will now notice that this (85 TW) is close to the predicted world energy consumption in 2100 (50 TW). A somewhat bigger growth, or a somewhat less optimistic return on solar energy, and we simply won’t make it. We are perilously close to a magical dividing line in human history. There are three paths from here :

(1) We solve the problems of nuclear power and get as much as we want.

(2) We build a global lifestyle that stabilises at 5kW each.

(3) We do nothing until war and chaos destroy the global infrastructure and we revert to a mediaeval economy.

Even scarier, uranium supplies are finite so nuclear fission may be no good either. (Understandably, this is vigorously denied by the Uranium Information Centre of Australia ..) So how about fusion ? Well its promising but we have been trying for decades and still can’t get out more energy than we put in, let alone produce energy on an industrial scale.

Maybe I should teach my kids how to use a bow and arrow, and move to the Hebrides.