29 September 2010

Geoengineering Today

Geoengineering . . . You're Looking At It

"Geoengineering" refers to large-scale efforts to manipulate the climate. There are several current and recent activities that have been undertaken for other purposes, but which have the effect of changing climate, for good or ill.

We will set aside the deliberate release of 25 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases from combustion of fossil fuels each year, a geoengineering "experiment" that seems already to be creating many interesting effects. Although this is one of the largest geoengineering projects ever undertaken, it has been discussed in some detail elsewhere.

The three current geoengineering programs this post will consider are:
  • China's "Great Green Wall"
  • Large-scale expansion of irrigation
  • Large-scale deforestation

Afforestation Changes The Climate

Since 1978 China has been engaged in a vast project that has been called the "Great Green Wall". In 1981 the National People’s Congress passed a resolution to require every citizen above age 11 to plant at least three Poplar, Eucalyptus, Larch or other saplings every year. [Source] Afforestation has already covered 500,000 square kilometres with new artificial forest, and China hopes to have such forests on 400 million hectares--more than 42% of its land area--by 2050.

Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu recently called for even greater efforts to increase China's forest cover.

The immediate goal of this program is to slow the encroachment of desert from the north and west into areas formerly grassland. Whether artificial forests can do this remains to be seen. And there are some concerns about other effects, such as increased water use. [More at Wikipedia.] A similar effort was the shelterbelt program in the U.S. Great Plains in the 1930s, but that was not on a Chinese scale.

Since forests affect the water cycle, albedo, and cloud cover of an area they can be expected to modify the local climate, and perhaps the climate downwind.

Irrigation Changes The Climate

Large programs of crop irrigation in Asia and North America result in large quantities of water evaporating from fields and water channels, and by transpiration through plants.

Because of the latent heat of water, more evaporation means more cooling in some places, and more rain means more warming in other places.  A recent article in the Journal of Geophysical Research (pdf here, New York Times Green blog post about it here) says irrigation may be causing cooling in some regions, locally masking the effects of global warming.

The model runs reported in this paper suggest that parts of northern India may have experienced several degrees of cooling due to all the heat absorbed by irrigation water applied to crops in the later part of the 20th century. Weather patterns may even have been affected enough to reduce the amount of rain in the Bay of Bengal branch of the Southwest Monsoon. (Other researchers got somewhat different or even contradictory results with different models.)

This is a bit scary because if groundwater depletion leads to reduction in irrigation in the future, the resulting reduction of cooling effect could have both local an regional climate effects, including sharply higher temperatures and changes in rainfall amounts and distribution.

Deforestation Changes The Climate

Large-scale deforestation for conversion of forest to pasture or cropland is an old story.  Such deforestation took place over much of Europe and temperate North America in earlier centuries. A similar massive land-use change was the breaking up of the American prairie grasslands for farming in the 19th century.

When forests are burned (the usual method) to clear them for agriculture the carbon trapped in the trees is dumped into the atmosphere. Soot and other particulates are also released in great quantities. Both CO2 and black carbon have significant local and global effects on climate.

The Nature Conservancy says "deforestation and land use change contributes approximately 20 to 25 percent of the carbon emissions that cause climate change." This Wikipedia article on per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by country, which uses data from the World Resources Institute for 2000, suggests land-use changes account for about 17% of greenhouse gas emissions.

So land-use changes, mostly deforestation, annually release about the same amount of greenhouse gases as the USA or China does from all burning of fossil fuels.

The Future of Geoengineering

Several enormous geoengineering projects have been discussed as ways to undo some of the damage the earlier geoengineering projects mentioned above are causing. This previous post looks at some of the limitations and potential impacts of such schemes. Whether such consequences are "unintended", "unavoidable", or "somebody else's problem" will be part of the discussion of these projects in years to come.

24 September 2010

Green Blogs List

What is a Green Blog?

There is no clear line between blogs and many other web-based information channels. Many lists of "blogs" on the web include a lot of sites that are not blogs in any useful sense of the word. So here is a new, focused list of green blogs.

It does not include sites that are purely news channels or the web presences of news or trade magazines. It emphasizes blogs that are not commercial projects with paid staff. It also emphasizes blogs with information of interest to businesses, so it is light on lifestyle blogs.

That said, here is my subjective list of the green blogs (in English) that are most worth reading. I follow many of these for Daily Green Brief.

Please use the comment panel below to add your suggestions, complaints and corrections.

List of Green Blogs

Blog Comments
Autoblog Green Cars
businessGreen blog
Cleantech Blog
CleanTechies blog Part of the CleanTechies portal
CleanTechnica Part of the Important Media network
Climate Progress Politics; a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund
Coal Tattoo Coal
Daily Green Brief
Doc's Green Blog With bay area events list
Eco-Libris blog Eco-Libris greens the publishing industry
EcoGeek Apps and hardware
George Monbiot's blog Carried in The Guardian
GigaOM Cleantech Formerly earth2tech
Green Building Elements Part of the Important Media network
Green Prophet Middle East
Greenspace blog Part of the Los Angeles Times
Guardian Environment blog Part of The Guardian
Huffington Post green blog
ICIS Green Chemicals Chemicals industry
Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes Nuclear
Inhabitat Green design
Marc Gunther's blog
Mongabay Tropical forests, conservation, and wildlife
New York Times Dot Earth blog Part of the New York Times opinion section; Andrew Revkin's column
New York Times Green blog Part of The New York Times science section
One Block Off The Grid Blog Solar; 1BOG is a solar group purchasing site
Planetsave Part of the Important Media network
RealClimate Science
RenewableEnergyWorld blog
Reuters Environment blog Part of Thompson Reuters
Roger Pielke Jr.'s Blog
SolveClimate Blog and news aggregator
Switchboard Staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Oil Drum Fossil fuels
The Wonk Room -- Climate Politics; a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund
TriplePundit Both blog-type posts and items by staff writers
Watts Up With That? "green" climate skeptic
Yale Environment 360 "a publication of the Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies"

The World of Green Blogs

Blogs come in many flavors.
  • Some are personal, independent projects (like this one).
  • Some are still personal, but have sponsors. An example is Joseph Romm's Climate Progress, a project of The Center for American Progress Action Fund
  • Some that were started as blogs have become elaborate corporate web portals, like Treehugger, owned by Discovery Communications.
  • Others, while part of corporate web systems, have maintained their informal, lightly edited, community-oriented blog character, such as Autoblog Green, which is owned by AOL Inc. 
  • Many "blogs" are run by mainstream media companies such as The New York Times or The Guardian. They are more like columns than blogs. Nonetheless I have included some of them in the list.
  • Some have grown from personal into entrepreneurial enterprises as their proprietors struggle to find ways to make them pay.
  • Some are aggregators, like Matter Network, an "alliance of web publishers".
One factor that helps distinguish a blog from a news site or commercial site is its rights policy. I look for a Creative Commons license rather than an "all rights reserved" copyright. Also, a blog should ideally have an identifiable author or group of regular authors. I am consciously excluding the many commercial news sites that are sometimes seen in lists of blogs, such as Environmental Leader and Biofuels Digest.

Green Blog Directories

There are several directories of green blogs, but of varying quality.
  • technorati has a separate green directory where blogs are ranked automatically using the site's "authority" metric. There are a lot of non-blogs in the list, and some quality blogs have inexplicably low scores (e.g. George Monbiot with a green score of 116). But in general the blogs are ranked in a way that seems to correspond to their real value.
  • Alternative Energy News maintains the Energy Planet renewable energy directory. It has all sorts of green sites, not just blogs.
  • Green Blog List exists, but its search function doesn't seem to work.
  • Best Green Blogs seems no longer to be accepting free listings. Many top blogs not listed (e.g. Autoblog Green).
  • The Open Directory Project, and the directories based on it, and many other directories, don't have a home for green. Green blogs are widely scattered. For instance Grist is under "Science: Environment: News and Media" while George Monbiot's blog is under "Regional: Europe: United Kingdom: News and Media: Journalists" and Climate Progress is under "Society: Issues: Environment: Climate Change". Many of the blogs in my list do not appear in dmoz at all. This is why I thought this list would be useful.
Again, I encourage and appreciate your comments.

(By the way, check out the ongoing Green Business Blog Carnival fostered by Sustainablog and the team at Triple Pundit.)

Other blogs of interest:
environmentalresearchweb blog
GreenBiz blogs

17 September 2010

Green Business Blog Carnival No. 15

The Green Business Blog Carnival brings you the best of the blogs every week. Admission is free! Top posts from leading green blogs around the world.

So grab a corn dog or a deep-fried Twinkie® and check out the midway for thrilling rides, tests of strength and skill, and attractions for the whole family!

Check Planetsave to see last week's Carnival if you missed it. (There is a list here in the sidebar to the right with links to all of the past Carnivals.)

The Greatest Posts on Earth

What does "green building" mean in Haiti, where whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble? Thera Kalmijn begins to answer this question at Matter Network, in part 1 of a series of 3 posts about "Rebuilding a Sustainable Haiti: Best Green Building Practices in Developing Countries".

Raz at Eco-Libris posts an extensive interview with Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Rolf Skar, replying to Ian Lifshitz, Sustainability and Public Outreach Manager at Asia Pulp and Paper. More in the continuing APP saga.

Nick Aster at Triple Pundit asks "Are You Ready for Opportunity Green?" and "What conferences are you going to this year?" He says that with Opportunity Green, Net Impact, West Coast Green, and SoCap all on the radar it's hard to pick. Like the barker at our Carnival, he says, "Come Over to 3p and view our events sidebar for some of the best, including how to get useful discounts!" Come one, come all!

Kerry Given at Green Marketing TV posts about How Ceres Is Helping Businesses Go Green. Non-profit Ceres [not to be confused with Ceres, Inc.] has created several major programs for businesses and investors including the Ceres Roadmap to Sustainability, the Global Reporting Initiative, Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, and the Investor Network on Climate Risk, each briefly profiled in this post.

Editor's Wild Card: Marc Gunther posts about the Progressive Automotive X Prize results. And the winner is . . . The Edison2 Very Light Car 98, a 4-seater that achieved the equivalent of 100.3 miles per gallon with a one-cylinder engine burning an E85 blend. The Edison2 team collected $5 million. Another $5 million was split by two specialty EV entries.

Editor's Super Bonus: Post from Jennifer Kaplan at Ecopreneurist looks at how California Chambers of Commerce Members Prove Energy Efficiency is Profitable. Small Business California has published a new booklet, "32 Examples of Chambers of Commerce & Chamber Members in California: Leading the Clean Energy Economy", which profiles local California chambers of commerce and their members who are demonstrating how recovering profits through energy efficiency can help strengthen the chamber, its business members and the community. Post links to the free booklet.

Here at Doc's Green Blog we analyzed a recent article in the journal Energy, "A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis". Translation: "Peak coal is here". Interesting implications for energy policy if it's true.

Our sister blog Daily Green Brief selects, links to and comments on top green news for business. Yesterday's post, for example, noted items on carbon trade barriers, the UK push toward adaptation, coal issues in India, China and at the World Bank, plus other news for and about sustainable businesses.

Thanks to all who submitted their favorite posts for this week's Carnival!

The Continuing Carnival

Green Business Bloggers take note! You can submit items for future editions of the Green Business Blog Carnival here. Why not publicize your blog, share your insights, and get some links and traffic?

See the schedule for upcoming hosts of the Carnival. If you would like to host an upcoming edition on your very own blog, this page also tells you how to volunteer. Thanks to Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Sustainablog and the team at Triple Pundit for organizing the Carnival and managing the details.

Next Friday go to the Viv Business Club blog for more Carnival action!

13 September 2010

Storms of My Grandchildren--James Hansen

Serious Science for Critical Times

Storms of My Grandchildren cover imageDr. James Hansen has written a personal, idiosyncratic, urgent, heartfelt book about climate change, past and future. The reader can feel his frustration at the stubborn inaction of governments in the face of what he sees as a looming disaster. But one also feels the warmth, the grandfatherliness, advertised by the book's title. Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity is more than half science, but it is part emotion. Scientists are people too.

The book's message in brief: It's worse than we thought, and here's why. Politicians are subservient to fossil fuel polluters. We have to do something about it unless we want to leave our descendants a severely damaged, and perhaps uninhabitable, world.

Hansen, in spite of the public role he has felt called upon to play, is 100% scientist. The book's structure uses his own journey as a researcher, and as an expert called upon to brief government leaders, to explain a lot of serious science. Climate forcings, paleoclimatology, aerosols, and more are presented to the reader in more depth than is usual for a book targeted at the general public.

Science of Climate Change

graph from Fig. 18
Color version of book's Figure 18
"Deep ocean temperature during the Cenozoic era"
[Do we really want to go back to the
Permian-Eocene Thermal Maximum
when sea levels were 75 meters higher?]
Some readers will be tempted to skip over some of the technical background. They will miss a fascinating part of the message. The scientific explanations are clear enough, although Dr. Hansen does take some shortcuts and requires the reader to pay attention. He has been immersed in this field for nearly 50 years and is used to its jargon, units and arguments. On the other hand this is not meant to be a textbook. Some compression and ellipsis is unavoidable. Readers who glide over the technical parts will be missing something important.

The science, Hansen is saying, is fundamental, undeniable, and convincing. He naturally feels that the reader should understand it in order to follow the argument that climate change is a serious threat to society. We may be setting in motion changes in the Earth's climate that could wipe out life on the planet and will certainly make life tougher for coming generations in this century. He urgently wants to get that message across.

Frustration with Inaction

This is a polemic. Hansen feels that politicians are in the palm of economic interests that benefit from continuing "business as usual" even in the face of urgent warnings of enormous risks. He is urging the people to take action.

His deep understanding of climate forcings and their effects in the past leads him to a much greater degree of alarm than many other scientists or environmentalists feel comfortable expressing. He has been criticized by other climate activists for lacking "a realistic idea of what is politically possible".

Hansen doesn't pull his punches. He thinks "cap and trade" is useless. He thinks expanded use of nuclear power is part of the solution. In these areas he treads beyond the strict boundaries of his expertise.

But when he says that targets like 450ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere are much too high and will lead to disaster, he speaks of science he has studied in depth. He implores us to get back to 350ppm.
A striking conclusion from this analysis is the value of carbon dioxide--only 450 ppm, with estimated uncertainty of 100 ppm--at which the transition occurs from no large ice sheets to a glaciated Antarctica. This has a clear, strong implication for what constitutes a dangerous level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. If humanity burns most of the fossil fuels, doubling or tripling the preindustrial carbon dioxide level, Earth will surely head toward the ice-free condition, with sea level 75 meters (250 feet) higher than today. It is difficult to say how long it will take for the melting to be complete, but once ice sheet disintegration gets well under way, it will be impossible to stop.

With carbon dioxide the dominant climate forcing, as it is today, it obviously would be exceedingly foolish and dangerous to allow carbon dioxide to approach 450 ppm. [p. 160]
Neither politicians nor political climate activists and thought leaders like to be told that they are being "exceedingly foolish". Yet Hansen goes further. "But maybe Congress doesn't really care about your grandchildren. [p. 215]"  "The present situation is analogous to that faced by Lincoln with slavery and Churchill with Nazism--the time for compromises and appeasement is over. [p. 211]"

A Book Worth Reading

Sophie and Connor,
Dr. Hansen's grandchildren
Dr. Hansen has decided that he knows something important, and that he must speak out about it. Not everyone will agree with the urgent, even intolerant, tone of his call to action. But it is based on true feelings founded on decades of serious science.

How the book's call to action affects you will depend on your biases and personality. Some will be moved to do something, some will be more informed but still passive, some will be annoyed, some will be indifferent. But all will have learned something.

The science that is at the heart of the book is worth seriously considering. If Hansen is right, our children, grandchildren and more distant heirs are going to curse us. We heard the message, and we are doing little or nothing. We blunder past tipping points with little concern for those who will have to live in the world we are leaving them.

Want to buy it? Click here: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

Dr. Hansen's web site is here.

He and Dr. Makiko Sato have also created the Updating the Climate Science page to supplement and update the content of Storms of my Grandchildren.

The book's official web page is here.

Good reviews of the book at Daily Kos and the Los Angeles Times.

The color version of the book's Figure 18 is from this site.

The picture of Sophie and Connor is from here. A black-and-white version is in the book at page 272.

The contents of the book are copyright © 2009 by James Hansen. The illustrations are copyright © 2009 by Mikiko Sato.

11 September 2010

"Peak Coal" And The Future Of Energy

Is coal the fuel of the past? Will the rising price of energy from coal make alternative energy sources more economically competitive? Recent research says "Maybe."

peak coal graph from Patzek & Croft 2010
Peak Coal
How Much Coal Is There?

The large-scale burning of coal is contributing significantly to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, a key global forcing driving climate change. Some want rules to push for the substitution of renewable energy sources or nuclear power for coal to reduce the severity of future global warming effects. But is the amount of coal projected to be burned in "business as usual" (BAU) scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and others really there to be burned?

Tad Patzek of the University of Texas at Austin and Gregory Croft of The University of California, Berkeley, decided to find out. They contend that the stated coal reserves published by governments have a significant political component. They say, "The proved reserve numbers are the source of the myth of a 200-400 years supply of coal worldwide at the rate of production of roughly 6.5 billion tonnes per year."

So they used historical production data fitted to Hubbert curves, which predict the total amount that can be extracted from a mining resource based on past rates of extraction. They also looked at the world's coal reserves in terms of the quality of the deposits--the amount of energy produced per tonne by burning it. They say they wanted "to inject some geophysics into the debate."

They found that the peak of energy production (and CO2 emission) from coal may have nearly been reached.

Their work is reported in the journal Energy. The abstract and citation is here. (Unfortunately the full article is behind a $35.95 pay wall, unless you subscribe to Energy. You don't, do you? Hardly anybody does. This is called "secret science". Fortunately the paper is available in PDF here.) From the abstract:
We develop a base-case scenario for global coal production based on the physical multi-cycle Hubbert analysis of historical production data. ... The resulting base-case is significantly below 36 of the 40 carbon emission scenarios from the IPCC. The global peak of coal production from existing coalfields is predicted to occur close to the year 2011. The peak coal production rate is 160 EJ/y, and the peak carbon emissions from coal burning are 4.0 Gt C (15 Gt CO2) per year. After 2011, the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037, and reaching 50% of the peak value in the year 2047. It is unlikely that future mines will reverse the trend predicted in this BAU scenario.
Translation: "Our statistical analysis suggests that peak coal is upon us, and that the use of coal to generate energy will decline in the future, even if more mines are dug."

A summary of their findings:
  • Both global coal production and CO2 from burning coal will peak in 2011.
  • CO2 from coal will decrease by half by 2050.

Very Different Numbers

This contradicts coal industry and even government agency forecasts. The U.S. Energy Information Administration shows continuous increase in energy from coal (almost entirely in Non-OECD Asia) in their projections to 2035. (See International Energy Outlook 2010 - Highlights. The full report is available in PDF here.)

Patzek and Croft compare their prediction of coal consumption over time with 40 IPCC scenarios developed to model future coal use and emissions. They assert, "Most of the IPCC scenarios seem to have little to do with reality predicted by the actual coal production data. In the year 2100, the physical Earth will not be producing 5-7 times more than at the peak in 2011. ... The real problem 40 years from 2009 will be an insufficient supply of fossil energy, not its overabundance, as the IPCC economists would have it."

Could newly discovered coal fields or new mining technology prevent the decline in coal production? The authors think not. "Gradual improvements in recovery percentage should fall within the base-case; only a technology that allows access to a new population of coal seams should create a new fundamental Hubbert cycle, such as in unconventional natural gas recovery in the U.S." Such technology breakthroughs are always possible. They also point out that some new fields are remote, or have environmental or water-availability issues that may hinder their ability to change the overall picture.


Barring such revolutionary technological breakthroughs, want does this analysis mean for the future of energy, and in particular for atmospheric CO2 concentrations?

They point out that lower-energy coals will become increasingly uneconomic. Coal has a significant transportation cost, which would be a higher proportion of the cost of using low-energy coal.

As coal production declines, while global energy demand continues to increase, the authors suggest that there will be an increasing emphasis on more efficient coal-to-energy technologies, such as "to gradually replace the existing electrical power generation blocks with the new ultra supercritical steam blocks (steam temperatures of 620-700 °C, and pressures of 220-250 bars), whose electrical efficiency is close to 50%, compared with the ~35% efficiency currently realized. This replacement might ultimately lower current CO2emissions from coal-fired power stations by 15/35 ≈ 40% for the same amount of electricity." They think increasing coal-fired generating capacity, as opposed to efficiency, would be a dumb idea given the future decline of coal supply.

They also say "Scarce coal will make it difficult to justify the energy penalty of CCS [carbon capture and storage at coal plants]." They feel there are cheaper and quicker ways to sequester carbon than by coal-fired carbon extraction and compression systems.

They add, "Cap-and-trade policies for carbon dioxide emissions will not be effective if the cap is set near peak emission levels, and may allow the natural decline of coal production to effectively subsidize a lack of effort on the part of energy industry."

The Phase-Out of Coal

Although the authors of this report do not say so, reduced supply of coal will drive up its price. As we try to extract more and more energy from coal we will deplete the easy-to-get-at and high-quality deposits, and have to turn to more expensive and less-energy-dense sources. Thus the production of energy from coal combustion will become more expensive. The coal itself will be more costly, and more will have to be burned to generate the same amount of power.

This will make competing sources of energy such as wind more competitive. Already Europe is projected to substantially increase its share of energy from wind, with a corresponding decrease in the share from coal.

Coal miners and coal companies have considerable political clout, which has minimized restrictions on coal use to control greenhouse gas emissions. But they can do little about the cost of coal. In the end the switch from coal to gas, nuclear and renewables may be driven more by the decline in supply of coal and its increasing cost than by national emissions-control strategies.

National Geographic has a good article about this research report.

The image is Figure 2 from Patzek and Croft, A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis, Energy, Volume 35, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages 3109-3122 at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2010.02.009
copyright 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All of the quoted content is also copyright Elsevier. Used under Fair Use standards.

08 September 2010

Deepwater Horizon Fail

The Deepwater Horizon aflame 21 April 2010

How Could This Happen?

BP has provided its first analysis of what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon that led to 11 deaths and the nation's biggest single maritime oil release. As expected, lots of things had to go wrong at once.

Big disasters in complex systems usually require a cascade of errors and flaws. The Apollo 13 explosion, which had an unlikely chain of six design errors, operational failures and accidents that had to happen before the tank blew, was typical.

So what, specifically, happened on Deepwater Horizon?

BP's Analysis

BP's team of internal and outside experts has presented its 193-page report, and BP has made it available here. There is also an executive summary and a video summary.  

The presentation says this is not meant to be "the definitive or final word on what happened." The study team didn't have access to some witnesses or some physical evidence. The analysis was highly technical, and describes what they think happened in a complex and specialized system of hardware.

The Deepwater Horizon Rig
BP's Findings:
  • "We concluded that there was no single action or inaction that caused the accident."
  • "The accident was the culmination of a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgements, engineering design, operational implementation and team communication."
  • The team found eight interrelated or contributing factors:
    • Hydrocarbons got into the production casing through the shoe track because of failures of the cement and shoe track barriers. Probably the cement slurry that was used was not correct, contributing to this failure.
    • The annulus cement barrier also failed, also possibly because the cement used was incorrect or incorrectly applied.
    • The results of the negative pressure test that was supposed to show well integrity was inconclusive, but the well team incorrectly accepted these results as showing the well was intact.
    • Instrument readings over a 40 minute period showed that hydrocarbons were entering the well, but the crew did not notice or properly interpret these signals until the hydrocarbons were already in the riser and rushing toward the surface.
    • Once the crew realized that well integrity had failed, the actions they took failed to regain control of the well.
    • After the flow of hydrocarbons reached the rig it was routed to a mud-gas separator, which is designed to safely manage only small amounts of hydrocarbons. It should have been vented overside away from the rig through the available 14-inch lines. Hydrocarbons emitted by the mud-gas separator were vented on the rig and were able to penetrate into its spaces.
    • Gas was drawn into the engine rooms through their ventilation systems creating a potential for ignition, but the rig's fire and gas system failed to prevent such ignition.
    • The resulting explosion and fire disabled crew-operated controls to the blow-out preventer. The blow-out preventer should still have been able to stop the flow with its automatic systems, but lax maintenance and inspection of the BOP, or other problems, meant these automatic systems did not work.
This is obviously only a preliminary analysis. If the blow-out preventer had functioned properly it would have saved the day even after all the other errors and failures. Just saying "it failed to operate" covers a lot. Now that it has been recovered it will be analyzed in turn. Probably we will find that, like Apollo 13's oxygen tank no. 2, a number of faults, misjudgments, miscommunications, errors and design flaws were required to cause it to fail.

Implications--Can It Happen Again?

One would think that such chains of error and accident would be so unlikely that we don't have to worry about another rig failing. That is obviously not accurate.

Another rig will not fail in exactly the same way, but we have already had an explosion/fire on another Gulf of Mexico rig in the brief time since the Macondo blowout. And remember the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 (167 deaths) and the Ixtoc I blowout in 1979 (where the blow-out preventer also didn't do its job).

With more and more rigs of greater and greater complexity in tougher and tougher environments we should expect such disasters in the future. This is just a cost of using oil.

The image of the burning rig is in the public domain, available here.
The diagram is from the presentation slides accompanying BP's report, available in PDF here.

07 September 2010

Geoengineering No Simple Solution

Can we use geoengineering to avoid the worst effects of climate change caused by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide? Don't count on it, say two recent scientific articles.

[Crossposted from sister blog A Very Different Earth.]

Sea Level Rise Can't Be Halted By Geoengineering

Researcher from China/Finland, the UK and Denmark modeled the effect of various geoengineering ideas on sea level rise. Their paper "Efficacy of geoengineering to limit 21st century sea-level rise" appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (abstract and access here). (They deserve thanks for making their paper open access.)

They find "sea-level rise by 2100 will likely be 30 cm higher than 2000 levels despite all but the most aggressive geoengineering under all except the most stringent greenhouse gas emissions scenarios." This means that even if we spend trillions on vast projects, and even if those projects work as planned, unless we also adopt tough measures to cut emissions sea level still goes up a foot.

And they say "Loss of low-lying land, combined with asset exposure to urban flooding due to the combined effects of climate change (sea-level rise and increased storminess), may reach 10% of projected global gross world product (GWP) in the 2070’s."

There are two things to consider when digesting that statement:
  • The authors are only talking about a meter of sea level rise in this century, at the lower end of current projections, and
  • The current recession cut the global economy by less than 2% from what it might have been without the recession. Imagine 10%.
They modeled several proposed projects:
  • Giant mirrors in space--These reduce climate forcing from the Sun's radiation, but leave greenhouse gases in the atmosphere where they continue to have their other negative effects such as ocean acidification. Also this project would be enormously expensive.
    • Who could think that launching 20 million tonnes of mirrors into space could be less of a blow to the economy than cutting greenhouse gas emissions by reducing coal use? 
    • For comparison, the International Space Station weighs only 370,000 tonnes, and it has taken a decade to get it up there. It is the most expensive object ever constructed. It has been estimated to cost €100 billion over its 30-year life. Could taxpayers afford €5 trillion?
  • Aggressive afforestation, replanting cut forests and planting trees to create new forests, might be able to take some CO2 out of the atmosphere, reducing that climate forcing. But CO2 could only be reduced by about 45ppm. Humans have put more than a hundred ppm of CO2 into the atmosphere over the past century or so, and are adding about 2ppm per year. So models still showed significant sea level rise.
  • Increasing biochar levels in the soil would reduce the CO2 levels by even less--about 35ppm.
  • Aggressive conversion from petroleum and coal to biofuels with capture and storage of the resulting CO2 from their combustion could reduce atmospheric CO2 180ppm by 2100.
  • A combination of afforestation, biochar sequestration and biofuels with carbon capture and storage could take 250ppm of CO2 out of the atmosphere and might keep sea level rise to "only" 20 to 40 cm.
  • Injecting SO2 into the atmosphere, equivalent to a major volcanic eruption every year and a half, could reduce global temperature rise a degree or so, but would leave the CO2 in the atmosphere. Such a project might reduce sea level rise by 20cm or so. And if the program were ever ended warming would bounce back in a short time, with accompanying sea level rise.
    • And see the other findings below for more problems with SO2 injection.
In the end they conclude "Substituting geoengineering for greenhouse gas emission abatement or removal constitutes a conscious risk transfer to future generations."

Geoengineering Helps Some But Hurts Others

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Oxford studied the regional impacts of various geoengineering concepts. Their work is reported in Nature Geoscience. (Abstract only here. Unfortunately these researchers did not make their findings open access.)

They modeled solar-radiation management by adding reflecting aerosols to the stratosphere. Previous modeling studies suggested that such an approach could stabilize global temperatures and reduce global precipitation. Their findings:
Our results confirm that solar-radiation management would generally lead to less extreme temperature and precipitation anomalies, compared with unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions. However, they also illustrate that it is physically not feasible to stabilize global precipitation and temperature simultaneously as long as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise. Over time, simulated temperature and precipitation in large regions such as China and India vary significantly with different trajectories for solar-radiation management, and they diverge from historical baselines in different directions. Hence, it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously using solar-radiation management. Regional diversity in the response to different levels of solar-radiation management could make consensus about the optimal level of geoengineering difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
So shooting millions of tonnes of SO2 into the stratosphere can cool the globe, but its effects are uneven. An article in The Economist provides more details:
A particularly salient example of this comes from Asia. There were a number of geoengineering scenarios in which the climate in both India and China in the 2020s looked quite like that of the 1990s, though in all geoengineering scenarios using this particular model India gets a bit wetter than it was before and in most of them China gets a bit drier. Go out to the 2070s, though, and the geoengineering scenarios strong enough to keep China’s temperature 1990s-ish cool India below its baseline temperature, while weaker scenarios that keep India’s temperature at the levels of the 1990s see China heat up.

That said, in both cases all the geoengineering options gave results for both temperature and precipitation closer to 1990s levels than the models projected for a world without geoengineering. In this sense both countries were "winners"—but maximising the benefits for one would still come at the expense of the other. The same lesson seems to apply quite generally across the world. Few if any regions stand out as certain losers from geoengineering if you accept that it is worth trading off a large change in temperature for a smaller drop in precipitation (in terms of change on the levels seen before the geoengineering). But different levels of geoengineering seem optimal for different regions.
So the question would be, who gets to decide what geoengineering to do? Presumably those who pay for it will control which projects get done. And naturally they will undertake projects that benefit themselves, even if they cause harm elsewhere in the world. This would be geopolitically very unfriendly, sort of like declaring war.

If these results hold I doubt we will see much geoengineering until and unless climate change gets so disruptive that the community of nations falls apart and it's every one for itself.

A Scientific American blog post also covered the sea level rise story.