Global warming, empty bellies

A few months ago, Micah Williams, TEDxMileHigh’s newest (and only full-time) employee, asked if I might write a blog post about climate change. I said “sure,” and then I thought about what I could say about climate change that wasn’t being said.

Full Planet, Empty PlatesI used to cover the topic at the Daily Camera, and still follow it pretty closely (subscribing to The Daily Climate and Climate Progress daily emails, both great resources). But I came up blank for a couple of months. Then the Earth Policy Institute sent the Society of Environmental Journalists’ list an offer of a review copy of Lester Brown and company’s new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. I had interviewed Brown back when I was at the Camera and have paid close attention to his books ever since. We all should.

I bit, they sent, I read, and then, as tends to happen, complementary ideas suddenly came to my attention, in particular in the form of a World Bank report and a Jeremy Grantham essay. I sent Micah a note and said I had an idea: that the great threat of global warming  may well be its impact on food supplies.

The result isn’t poetry — more the product of a couple of hours of frenetic pro-bono synthesis and a modicum of editing (on my part; I think Micah did more). But it had simmered a good long while.

Unintended (or intended) climate-change irony from the SEJ

From the unintended (or probably intended, given the source) irony department: the first three news items from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ e-mail summary this a.m. For those living in caves and U.S. Senators from Oklahoma: heat waves such as the one stoking the wildfires in Colorado and intense storms like those we’re seeing in Florida and Duluth, Minn. are among the many symptoms climate models predict for a warming planet.


“Global leaders ended a U.N. development summit on Friday with what was widely considered a lackluster agreement, leaving many attendees convinced that individuals and companies, rather than governments, must lead efforts to improve the environment.” Paulo Prada and Valerie Volcovici report for Reuters June 25, 2012.


“Factbox: Main Points In Rio+20 Agreement” (Reuters)

“Rio+20: Agreement Reached, Now the Work Begins” (ENS)

“Rio+20 Earth Summit: Campaigners Decry Final Document” (Guardian)



“COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The total number of homes destroyed by a two-week old wildfire in northern Colorado was raised to 248 on Sunday as residents of a subdivision near Fort Collins learned that 57 more homes in their neighborhood had been lost, authorities said. … With a total of eight fires burning, Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade.” The Associated Press had the story June 24, 2012.


“Eight Wildfires Roaring Across Colorado” (Denver Post)

“Fires Spread in Colorado, Utah” (Los Angeles Times)



“MIAMI — Tropical Storm Debby whipped Florida with bands of drenching rain Monday while its center was nearly stationary in the Gulf of Mexico. Its slow progress meant the most pressing threat from the storm was flooding, not wind.” MSNBC had the story June 25, 2012.


“Tropical Storm Debby Trains Sights On Florida, Alabama” (AP)


You think it’s hot out there now…

Washington D.C. hit 99 degrees Fahrenheit today; we in Denver have been in that neighborhood a few days already this June, and are headed back this weekend. The average June high is here supposed to be 83. We’ve had roughly zero precip; the potted plants wilt within a hours of a soaking.

So let’s say we’re 10 degrees hotter than normal, to be charitable. That’s 5.5  degrees Celsius, which is not far off from 4 degrees Celsius (1.5 degrees, roughly), about which David Roberts, the ueberprolific Grist blogger and Twitterhound, devoted a bit of his recent TEDx talk. He posted annotated slides here, from which I post the following:

From David Roberts/ You'll be dead in 2100, but your kids' kids won't be.

I don’t know about you, but when it gets over about 90 degrees, the flight instinct kicks in. Roberts is only the messenger, here. This isn’t alarmism, but rather a function of very well-understood physics–and probably conservative, given that we don’t know what kinds of amplifying feedback (mass release of carbon/methane from melting permafrost, say) will kick in, and we’re trending toward ever-higher greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s very difficult to imagine dampening feedback, at least when you’re not talking geologic time. This isn’t an election issue, for some reason, but it isn’t going away, either.


Oil Shale Decision Right On

The U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to limit land leases on oil shale — a euphemism for rock mixed with kerogen with the energy content of french fries — was wise. I wrote up a story pitch after the Bush Administration decision to vastly expand oil shale leasing  in 2008; it offers some perspective on the new approach, which reflects Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s skepticism of the energy source.

In brief, Interior simply said if Shell and others in the oil business can prove that the costs, water and energy inputs, and environmental damage associated with isolating and cooking —  to like 700 degrees F, for 2-3 years — all that buried kerogen is worth it, then the government will reconsider opening up some portion of the Bush cadre’s 2-million-acre gift. Until then, you’ve got 722 square miles (ten times the area of Washington D.C.) in three states to prove your case.

Doing otherwise is like reserving vast bodies of water for hydrogen fusion startups.

oil shale nugget

Kereogen-infused rock, a.k.a. oil shale

The usual cacophony of oil-bought politicians are expressing outrage. But any claims that oil shale is a realistic fix for our petro-addiction must be taken with extreme skepticism. The Center of the American West did a great write-up on oil shale five years ago, still valid today. And here’s my pitch:

For a century, petroleum reserves triple the size of the Saudi Arabian hoard thwart repeated attempts at its harvesting. Then an obscure scientist at a major oil company comes up with a better way. From solid black rock more than a thousand feet beneath desolate and parched mesas bubbles up crude so light and sweet refineries hardly need to touch it — hundreds of thousands, even millions of barrels per day. Enviros and statisticians skulk back to their yurts and cubicles; with ingenuity and pluck,Americacan indeed drill its way out of its oil problems.

It sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. Still, Royal Dutch Shell and others are selling their oil shale dreams, and the federal government is buying them. Shell’s Mahogany Research Project, into which the company has poured an estimated $200 million, gets its name from the “mahogany zone” shale of western Colorado, where each ton of rock could yield a barrel of oil or more — a million barrels per acre, geologists say. Small test plots have shown Shell’s “In Situ Process” of cooking oil shale where it lies really does work.

Shell in-situ oil-shale extraction schematic

A schematic of Shell's in-situ oil-shale extraction process, courtesy Rand Corporation.

In late November, the Bush Administration issued its midnight regulations related to oil shale. They established, among other things, an initial royalty rate of just 5 percent, amounting to a subsidy of billions of dollars. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, (D-Colo.) called it a “pittance.” Gulf of Mexico oil platforms pay royalties of 18.75 percent. Underground coal mines pays 8 percent. The new rules have oil shale royalty rates inching up after five years of production, until they match the 12.5 percent onshore oil and gas drillers pay. But the new rules don’t mention that Shell’s new process can extract its million barrels per acre within two years of opening the tap. The regulation also erases minimum lease sizes, such that oil companies could exploit entire leases, one after the other, without ever paying more than this “pittance.”

The Bureau of Land Management formulated its rules despite oil companies’ refusal to disclose production cost estimates or their proposed water or electricity needs, which would be gargantuan should oil shale make a dent ravenous U.S. consumption.

Republicans including Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch trumpet oil shale’s potential and want to start pumping ASAP; Democrats, take pause at the technical uncertainties and potential environmental damage and generally want to take things slow. Fortune and other business publications fawn over the Shell technology and the limitless potential of geologically half-baked oil reserves beneath the sagebrush deserts of Colorado,Wyoming and Utah. The Bureau of Land Management plans to open nearly 2 million acres of federal land, an area roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, to oil-shale leasing. BLM Director Jim Caswell says the 800 billion barrels of shale oil could “meetU.S. demand for imported oil at current levels for 110 years.”

That would, of course, mean cooking enough kerogen to extract some 13 million barrels of oil per day — an impossible volume. The BLM’s recent environmental impact statement lays out its substantial environmental damage estimates based on a 200,000 barrel-per-day industry. A RAND Corporation study for the U.S. Department of Energy study views a 1 million to 3 million barrel-per-day out as possible major-league production numbers. For perspective, the Gulf of Mexico produce about 1.4 million barrels per day; Alaska yields about 700,000 barrels per day; and the entire United States pumps about 5 million barrels per day. If oil-shale development happens, oil companies will make a fortune as the hunting town of Meeker, now in “a dusty corner of northwestern Colorado,” as Fortune put it, morphs into a high-desert Houston.

There would be benefits. Domestic oil shale production would improve trade balances and slow the flow of dollars to hostile petro-states. It would raise tax revenues and create thousands of jobs. But the consequences could be staggering.

Shale production could suck arid western Colorado dry. It would bring land devastation well beyond that of the drill-pad-pocked landscapes scarred by the Wyoming natural gas boom. Powering the heaters of a million-barrel-per-day oil shale operation would mean doubling Colorado’s current electricity production. Even if oil companies eventually harness the natural gas derived from extraction, it would take a dozen behemoth fossil-fuel power plants generate the electricity. There would be transmission lines, pipelines, countless trucks and rigs and the utter devastation of the lands unfortunate enough to overlay the shale. All this to get at rock with the pound-for-pound energy content of potatoes. Randy Udall, a western Colorado energy expert and oil shale critic has quipped: “If someone told you there were a trillion tons of Tater Tots buried 1,000 feet deep, would you rush to dig them up?” (His brother Mark, a Democrat who this month won the open Colorado U.S. Senate seat, supports “a responsible process for oil-shale development.”)

Indeed, shale’s energy content per pound of raw material just two thirds that of wood, 40 percent that of coal, and 20 percent that of conventional crude oil. Its extraction would deliver only about three times the energy required to wrestle it from the ground — with estimates as low as 1.2 times as much. That’s comparable to corn-based ethanol, a fuel much maligned for its paltry energy return on investment. The RAND study concluded that even a massive operation would have little impact on energy security or global oil prices. What’s more, shale oil’s extraction and eventual consumption would pump perhaps half again as much carbon into the atmosphere as conventional oil.

Seventy percent of our richest oil-shale reserves are on federal land. Before the country agrees to oil shale, taxpayers should have the full story.