A few years ago, I was discussing the impacts of drought on some Canadian crop regions with an acquaintance. The guy had no farming background whatsoever, which is not particularly unusual, as is the often accompanying disjointed view of how things really work. After a minute of mulling the crop devastation, he asked, “Couldn’t you just use like a watering hose?”
The guy wasn’t a particularly sizeable idiot; he was just isolated and had no idea how impractical and implausible that idea was. Short of helicoptering him to the middle of a 640 acre field, it can be hard to adequately describe the reality of the situation.
We can all be in this person’s shoes if we venture a solution for something we have no clue about. If a surgeon mentioned some procedural problem at work, I highly doubt my knowledge-free/chainsaws-are-wonder-tools suggestions would be much help.
That’s just an oddity of human discourse, and rarely anything more than an amusement. But not in the energy world. The garden-hose thinkers have elbowed their way to the decision table.
In January, a group of 400 “scientists, academics, and energy system modellers” sent a letter to federal cabinet ministers Freeland, Wilkinson and Guilbealt (sounds like a terrifying law firm) urging the federal government not to offer a tax credit for carbon capture and storage if that process was used to enhance oil recovery (CCUS).
The stance is a peculiar one; an underlying principle of engineering (and common sense) is that dual purpose efficiencies are the lowest hanging fruit there is. Since the world will be burning all that oil anyways, it makes complete sense to start there, and utilize that infrastructure wherever possible.
Not for the crowd of 400 though, who somehow have deemed themselves as better suited to deal with the issue. (Included in the signatories from whom we should take engineering advice are dozens of public policy people; dozens of sociologists; professors in film studies, Asian studies, religious studies, history, accounting, English, art history, philosophy…pretty much any social science discipline you can imagine.) All have deemed themselves experts on CCUS. All are collectively telling the government “don’t listen to the shill, a water hose will work just fine.”
Consider one of their complaints: “The buildout of CCUS infrastructure would require an enormous system of pipelines to transport the carbon.” It is one of the few items that they don’t bother to cite in their web of circuitous/nonsensical peer review, because to them that world doesn’t exist. Hydrocarbons are simply cut out of the equation going forward. The group urges the feds to instead pursue “increased electrification, wide-scale use of renewable energy, and intensifying energy efficiency.”
Nothing wrong with increasing energy efficiency, but what about the replacement of hydrocarbons with wide-scale use of renewable energy (their replacement logic, not mine)? As with farmers, they are bringing out the garden hose suggestion, but let’s hear what others that are interested in functionality have to say.
The IEA, who in some circumstances are still nobly unable to avoid certain truths, pointed out in a report last year that keeping global temperature rise under 2 degrees will quadruple mineral requirements/new mines by 2040, and to get to net-zero-2050 would mean a sixfold increase.
If that sounds ludicrous, that’s because it is, and won’t happen – according to another article by actual engineers, to achieve a full energy transition “would exceed not just existing and planned production capabilities [for copper, nickel, graphite, lithium, and others], but also known global reserves of those minerals.”
And that’s the theoretical part. Here’s the actual view from the ground – that no matter what the reserves are, they are getting more and more difficult to extract.
A few weeks ago, mining giant Freeport-McMoRan (you know who they are, the ones that brought down multi-billion dollar Bre-X by asking “Can we look at those gold samples for a few minutes please?”) CEO said in a year-end conference call: “We’re seeing increasing scarcity in supply, at a time when demand is growing so significantly. There are a limited number of projects, which have been under development for some time now…beyond that, it’s hard to find actionable projects that are can be developed within a very short period of time…there’s increasing political risk around the world that will have its impact on copper supply development. Notably in Chile and Peru, where 40% of the world’s copper comes from, there’s new President who run on agendas that are oriented towards social programs…you see this in countries like the United States, you see others countries restricting new supply development for community social issues…ranging all the ways from Asia to Central America to Africa. All of these things add into supply constraints.”
For reference, and this was helpful to me as a mining idiot, F-M’s latest mine to come onstream, in Indonesia – for which the company began spending capital 20 years ago – has over 350 miles of tunnels, seven miles of underground railroad to feed huge crushers, and five miles of conveyor belts. That’s why mines take 20 years to get running, and that time will only grow as regulations make them hard to get off the ground at all.
There is of course no guarantee that Trudeau/Guilbealt/Wilkinson/Freeland will listen to the group of 400, but there is no reason to think they won’t. Western leaders have surrounded themselves with ideological clones that are unfit for the job, that lack any experience in actually running an energy system.
Europe’s energy fiasco need hardly be discussed again, and the most startling part of all of it is that many of those failed energy generals are pointing to the high cost of natural gas as a reason to accelerate towards more renewables. That is exactly the same solution as the guy that suggested watering square-mile-fields with a garden hose or two.
The dementia extends over here. Biden is scouring the world for natural gas supplies for Europe in the event that Russia invades Ukraine, while back home his minions are doing whatever they can to diminish the hydrocarbon industry in favour of renewables.
Rumours are circulating (based on draft US government discussion papers) that Biden’s Administration will hike petroleum royalty rates by 50 percent (a White House spokesperson downplayed the report, calling the hike “pre-decisional draft language”).
The US is now one of the largest exporters of natural gas in the world (it took the title at least temporarily), a world that is without question desperately seeking more, and Biden’s new-energy mavens seem to think making production more difficult is a logical card to play, all while their boss looks under every global rock for more supply.
The wildly dangerous, off-course thinking underlying many of these decisions is the fundamentally ignorant belief that the energy transition is happening rapidly. Thus we have these armies of people that now declare themselves “energy experts” because they study every aspect of renewable energy with the embedded assumption that that will be the whole story.
It goes without saying that there are thousands of start up companies trying every new clean technology imaginable, and some will work, but most bring us right back to the critical minerals shortage issue like a crater that can’t be circumnavigated.
How can you trust any analysis that refuses to integrate the current hydrocarbon system that meets 80 percent of global energy needs? Any sensible game plan would start with that as the foundation, and embrace things like CCUS as relatively easy to reach milestones (and I have no idea if CCUS is economic at large scale either; all I know is that ‘decarbonization’ is going to be outrageously expensive in either economic or living standard terms, so if it is going to happen I vote for CCUS as being as sensible as anything).
Furthermore, despite several decades and trillions of expenditures, it can be easily argued that there is as of yet no energy transition at all – 80 percent of global energy transition needs were met by hydrocarbons 30 years ago, and that percentage is almost the same today. That is not the definition of a transition – it is a picture of an ever-increasing energy consumption pie with the size of each piece growing due to an increase in diameter, not an increase in proportion.
It feels a bit weird to point out such obvious circumstances when it is becoming more evident every day that the world is crying out for more hydrocarbons and not less. But as long as our governments – and the people that vote them in – continue to live in their la la land, the choice is to capitulate and let them drive the entire system into the ground, or take them out into the wheat field with a garden hose and wait for the light to go on.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here, or email Terry here. PS: Dear email correspondents, the email flow is wonderful and welcome, but am having trouble keeping up. Apologies if comments/questions go unanswered; they are not ignored.