Great recession caused the dirty oil boom? (plus bonus self-indulgent whinge about writer's block)

Here's something (PDF) I didn't know: monetary easing (QE and near-zero or even real-terms-less-than-zero interest rates) might have been responsible for the dirty oil boom and the subsequent price drop. (That's via a little summary of Helen Thompson's book).

It does also make the 'recessions always correlate to oil price hikes' claim you'll see being made by people I might call oil determinists. As she does here, even the recent mortgage credit related crash looks like an oil-triggered thing through this lens. Others, however, see e.g. the 70s oil crisis being made much worse by governments whacking the steering wheel in the wrong direction in reponse to what happened.

But this story about how massively expensive dirty fuel exploitation got going makes sense - and fits with the kind of up-down pattern we can probably expect without anything to counter it. Though I'm trying to picture how that ends and can't - if, for example, renewables continue to undercut fossil fuels, demand for them drops, their price drops... and what's the new equilibrium? How do you eventually see the end of an old energy source, as we have several times before?

Dunno. But I'm going to post this anyway, and try and post anything else interesting I find, as all I've been doing recently is writing abortive chunks of whinge about how I can't write any more. The first thing I need to do to fix that is (a) post little things like this even when this new 'you don't know enough about this' warning light I seem to now have courtesy of academia starts blinking in the cockpit and (b) even when I write horrific sentences like this, still post it because that's better than filling folders full of words that never get posted (well, maybe not for anyone reading...) and (c) work up slowly to the larger topics I keep on trying and failing to find a way to articulate.

I do want to write about what's happened to the writing (and thinking etc) because there's something important there. But it needs working up to and I'd feel better about doing it if I've got the wheel going a little under its own inertia.

The short of it seems to be: I used to love writing but I'm not sure a love of writing can survive in academia. No, correction: not sure my love of writing can. If there was some way for me to find a happy marriage of my own needs and what's required of me... but there, starting to whinge about it, I'll save that for later.

Let's see if it's another year to the next post.

Letter mainly to myself, post-Donald

I think I've probably finished the reading the internet now. Eyelids peeled back, unable to look away, scratching the wallpaper off to get at whatever thoughts or feelings might help shift this... matter through my digestive tract without rupturing something. It's ongoing. In the meantime, as for so many others, dream and reality are in some godawful state of twizzler. Panicked braincells scramble to hide behind each other, desperately straining to avoid the incoming signals.

Which is of course all angel delight to the right-wing maw. As a friend once said after they inflicted a vicious chess defeat that I'd poured everything into: "I wear your pain like a crown."

Well fuck them, obviously. (Not the friend - they're quite nice really.) Paul Ryan's vacant little Mona Lisa smile as he refuses to acknowledge that an appointed 'chief strategist' is clearly Voldemort - that's pretty much all we need to know about these people. "Evil overlord, you say? Hmm. Will this get me more power? Mmmmm."

I've been shocked into doing something. Pretty messed up that it should take this, but there's some comfort knowing exactly the same thing must be happening to thousands, millions of others.

There are a bunch of luxuries we no longer have. We don't have the luxury of much self-doubt. Or rather, it'll always be there - everyone has it - but you're not allowed to let it stop you. Them's the rules now. Do something. Anything from contacting people you haven't in a while, hugging a friend, donating, volunteering, painting, singing, plotting, inventing an entire utopia. Don't make a utopia in your spare room all alone though, and don't be silly and try and do it all on the internet. Come out and play. Bounce that stuff off other people - the one thing we need more now than ever is to connect with others in every way we can.

Sure, your mind may scowl: "you Walter Mitty peabrain, what the hell makes you think you can make any difference to anything? Remember all those things you fucked up? That's the real you. Drink your effing beer, stuff this Netflix into your eyeballs and SHUT UP." But... your mind can fuck off as well. And notice just how useful that bit of your mind is to those aforementioned power-mad eejuts. They want you to do nothing. Fuck them also. I said that already.

Because there are really very sound reasons why you should do the thing and not not do the thing. Jane Jacobs nailed it: anything good that ever happens or gets made is just accident fuelled by intention. It's a lot of people with ideas and bits of stuff they're making and trying, doing the thing - and usually finding out the thing doesn't turn out anything like how they thought. But then this other thing happens - Jacobs realised, in fact, that it happens without fail when we get together to do stuff. It's what humans do. Some magic mix of evolution and artistry: person A goes - hey, that thing you just did? What if I just bodge that in with this other thing? Oh sweet Christ, we've discovered a better way to organise the city! How did that happen?? Accident fuelled by intention, ladies and gentlemen.

But it needs the intention. You need to turn up, do the thing and - this bit is especially important - not not do the thing. Not doing the thing: that's self-doubt's job description. Spotting little green shoots of maybe doing the thing and yanking them up before you have a chance to get out the door.

And you do at least sometimes need to get out the door: do the thing where other people are doing things too, or take the thing out for a visit now and then.

So - for myself - I'm fucked if I'm gonna let some colossal tango-faced bullshit queen, centre of a venn diagram made from a blow-up sex doll and an obese geriatric ginger tomcat, mess with everyone else's amazing work on stabilising carbon output. It should probably have been obvious this couldn't be done without one or two countries going the full man-toddler on us. A puncture on the road is predictable enough - you've just got to roll your eyes, fix the damn thing and press on, even if you can see the little shits who threw the tacks laughing their asses off.

Put aside any eensy niggles about nuclear obliteration - as Nick Fury so wisely said, "until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on". The planet's future is somewhere on a distribution and, like these poor lushes trying to get to the pub across a bridge over a terrifying ravine of certain-ish doom, there is no point at which it's OK just to say: ah sod it, let's just stumble forward unconsciously and hope for the best. The odds are worsening with every year, but there are - for a good while yet - always odds worth taking. Here's Alex Steffan:

It’s a fight for every 1/10th of a degree. If we fail to hold to 2ºC, we have to fight for 2.1º; failing that, we battle on for 2.2º. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4ºC. For future generations, 4º is still better than 4.1º. "Game over" is neither realistic nor responsible.

And there isn't a shortage of other stuff to get stuck into. At the root of it all, connecting with others is the prime directive. For anyone who believes every person of any sex/gender/skin-colour/age/wealth/size/shape/geolocation/dress-sense deserves our deepest fucking respect and our care, that we all owe that to each other - that act of connection is the most fundamental and sacred thing we can do. Fucking cliché, I know, but you know that cliché about things being clichés for a reason? That.

To summarise:

1. Fuck them. (Obviously.)

2. Do the thing. Do not - and I really want to be clear on this point - not do the thing.

3. Be excellent to each other.

Now get on with it.

p.s. sorry I was rude about you Donald. I'm really cross with you right now.

Adaptive landscapes 2

Back in 2009, I was talking about adaptive landscapes: three real places and the quite different systems that human communities had evolved there to manage them. That was just before the PhD let go of those strands to focus on spatial economics (I'd been, hubristically, trying to combine all those up to that point). Two of those communities are concrete examples of non-centralised social technologies[1] achieving specific resource goals. The Balinese rice system constrains water use in a way that optimises the balance between pest management and productivity. Andean potato production was a magical innovation machine and living, breathing laboratory spread over the hills.

This stuff is still very dear to my heart, and flowed directly from the questions in the original PhD proposal. I want to get on to the adaptive landscapes stuff, but let's lead into that by answering a more straightforward bit from PhD #1.0. Top of the list: was Hayek right about the sacredness of the price system? Was its 'spontaneous order' a singularity in human history, requiring any attempt at planned interference in human affairs to be suppressed? Given what I've just said about Bali and Peru – guess what? Shock: no, I don't think he was. He correctly identified the price system as a distributed social technology, emerging from the uniquely human mix of evolution and language. But, far from being astronomically unlikely, there's evidence that humans are primed to create this sort of structure. I've long entertained a notion that adaptive landscapes are intimately related to the emergence of language itself, Wittgenstein's notion of meaning as a kind of flock tying nicely to that.

Whether that's true, or whether adaptive landscapes were a later innovation built on the platform language provided, makes little difference to their riposte to Hayek: we are natural-born de-centralisers, and we can make systems as diverse as you can imagine. Deifying the price system? Educating the socialism out of people (Hayek acknowledged people have altruistic instincts early in life) so's they didn't get the urge to meddle? Silly.

That's a gross over-simplification of Hayek's thinking and, in particular, I do partly buy his aversion to "planning blindness" and his view that social change should be more like gardening than engineering or construction. (Planning blindness nearly broke Bali's rice management system, for instance.) But it's clear that, if we followed his manifesto to the letter, new adaptive landscapes would have immense difficulty taking root, let alone blossoming.

Global Warming Policy Foundation: web banner data plus the rest

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (google them if you want, they get no links from me) have a web banner showing annual average global temps from the Met Office's HADCRUT4 dataset since 2001.

Given that Nigel Lawson's been putting himself about a bit (see andtheresphysics for an overview) I thought I'd stick their banner in its proper place, along with the full dataset - and made it into an animated gif. How 90s. The gif link is also here. Anyone spot any errors, let me know.

We're already trying 61% fuel tax - why would anyone think 22% could be a "one-page solution to climate change"?

Over at P3, Willard links to an that NPR/planet money article claiming economists can fix climate change with the price system alone. A quote:

"Jacoby's colleague John Reilly told me the price of gasoline might rise by 25 cents a gallon in the first year. Over time, that would increase. By 2050, Reilly figures the carbon tax would add about $1 to the price of every gallon. Across the economy, prices of energy-intensive goods and services would rise. This would encourage people and businesses to be more efficient."

A whole dollar per gallon by 2050! Oh dear. Compare: in the UK, a litre of petrol is £1.30 - that's £4.92 a US gallon. 61% is tax i.e. 79p per litre or £3.00 per gallon. ($5.11 at current rates).

In the US it's something like $3.70 per gallon. So a dollar tax...? It's currently 18.4 cents. A dollar tax would take that up to $4.52 - i.e. the tax would be ~22% of the fuel cost (at current prices, which is what I presume they're comparing to, i.e. it'd be the equivalent of today's dollar in 2050).

Yes, we've seen some efficiency gains, as has the rest of Europe, from having higher fuel duty. But that's from massively higher tax than even the 2050 amount suggested in that article. If we're not seeing the magic of the market produce low carbon outcomes at 61% duty - and haven't done, as fuel taxes have been this high in many countries for a long time - why would anyone think a 22% tax would be so effective?

Without effective infrastructure transition planning - rather than the shambolic approach we're still taking - fuel inelasticity won't change. People need to get to work, organisations need to consume transport - and transport input cost for most business is so low, taxes would have to be raised insanely high to impact on them.

So high fuel taxes have been tried in many countries and most of Europe - much higher than the US appears to deem politically acceptable even by 2050. That clearly won't work alone. Taxes, yes - but if anyone thinks taxes alone can solve this problem, they're dreaming.

If JFK had used the Matt Ridley approach to progress...

Brazenly stolen from verytallguy's comment over at ATTP. What if JFK in his moon speech had adopted the approach of many `lukewarmers' like Ridley and Tol, that future generations can probably work something out?

All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

It is for these reasons that we should do nothing and just wait for someone to invent an antigravity machine.

Krugman on degrowthies

update: I got P3'd.
I'm always interested when a mainstream economist pipes up about growth vs degrowth. As the wikipedia page says, degrowth is a `political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics and anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas'. The CASSE book Enough is Enough reflects this - not least because it emerged from a conference-wide braindump. It's a recognisable web of `ideas that tend to go together'; I'm unsure they're consistent. (I like standing on the sidelines and sniping too.)

So, Krugman just stuck his oar in, albeit only for about three sentences. It's obviously not possible to judge based solely on that, but it seems weirdly simplistic. In particular:

It's worth pointing out that they [the degrowthies] have a much too narrow notion of what it means to have a growing economy. It doesn't necessarily mean more stuff! It could be better stuff, or more services — and there are also choices to be made in how we produce and distribute stuff. There is absolutely no reason to believe in a one-for-one link between real GDP and greenhouse gases.

Well, no, there's not a one-to-one link. Really, no-one ever said there was. Let me have a go at stating my own position. Growth of material extraction can't go on forever. Economic growth can't be completely decoupled from physical output and that will eventually hit limits (is perhaps already). But that eventuality is some way off yet - any transition to a post-carbon economy requires growth for a few decades yet - a point that first hit home hearing Ruth Wood explain the economy's reaction to an increase in output of green tech using input-output models. But it's good to be arguing about this stuff right now. That web of ideas needs unpicking and re-assembling, and it's not a bad time to be doing that while economics as a whole is going through a serious navel-gazing period.

I also still have this vague sense that the concept of growth itself is being misapplied. As I've heard several people say who've been studying it in-depth, no-one really knows what the source of growth is. Jane Jacobs' ideas are enough part of my DNA for me to wonder if development wouldn't show up as growth in the kinds of indicators we use - which is what Krugman's implying, I think. A rainforest might be `steady-state' but it's ever-evolving. And actually, human development - while sharing some characteristics of evolving systems - has its own dynamic that's more a mash-up of attentive artistry and evolution. Which leads me to worry about building an entire political theory around an abstract target of zero-growth. I think other goals make more sense and would achieve genuine sustainability far more effectively than attempting some global-scale bound.

But Krugman is way more dismissive than I think the issue deserves. Jorg Friedrichs' back of the envelope numbers did more to convince me of that than anything else recently. Assuming 3% per annum growth, he points out, would require the resource intensity of the economy by 2100 to be reduced by 95% if resource levels were to be kept steady. And that's not even stopping their through-put - it's just keeping them as they are now. Any model of McDonough-style cradle to cradle metabolism using the same material set is going to be harder still (but, ultimately, necessary).

Another aspect that worries me: abstract concern about growth vs degrowth as an armchair-philosophy pursuit is one thing. The reality of resource extraction globally is quite another - and it's not a pretty story. Many people are vulnerable to exploitation, even to simply being killed for others to get access to the resources (though nice to see, googling for that, turns out someone actually got prosecuted for murder).

I'm still generally much more sympathetic to Krugman's economics than ideas put forward under the steady-state banner, but I've also been to a few evenings put on by CASSE here at Leeds - they've bought many thought-provoking speakers in and (notwithstanding the obligatory Trot taking questions as an opportunity to proselytise) the conversations have been great brainfood. There's especially still a huge gulf between the understanding of the money system - and claims about what should be done - between degrowthies and orthodox economics. Degrowthies seem way too sure of their ideas on this - again, I'm only sniping from the sidelines, and it's great that the arguments are happening.

But yes - prompted to write because I would have liked a more in-depth look at Krugman's thoughts on this stuff. Instead, all we get is: `such people have no power, and therefore don't do any real harm.' Nice!

"By visual inspection it can be seen that..."

"By visual inspection it can be seen that..." Can it? That certainly seems to be the approach of folks at the GWPF and elsewhere in the paws-o-sphere.

So, say you were locked in a windowless box room, someone handed you this daily temp record (pictured on the right also) and demanded you tell them which was coming next, summer or winter solstice? And if you get it wrong they'll shoot you in the head? You'd be happy with "by visual inspection it can be seen that..." would you?

As it happens, trends that long (29 days) go against the seasonal trend about 30% of the time for daily temp data near me. 3 in 10 odds of getting shot in the head there, if you went with "visual inspection". There is, of course, a seasonal trend, but it's noisy. With noisy trends, "visual inspection" is regularly, predictably misleading.

And that's the problem with the "pause" argument: the people most strongly selling it are going on nothing more than "by visual inspection it can be seen that..." Some of them do it knowingly, many others do it because it seems intuitively correct. Intuition is not always a good guide.

I cherrypicked that one, of course: the next solstice is summer. Here it is circled in green, in the context of four years' temp data, with other pink lines for all of the 30% that go against the seasonal trend.

Carbon capture and storage: saviour or snake oil?

An edit of a P3 comment:

The International Energy Agency just sent a tweet linking to a new report (PDF of exec summary) entitled "resources to reserves 2013". The web story has the top-level figures.

But it's the number in the tweet that I'm writing about: "even a 1% increase in the average recovery factor could add more than 80 bb, or 6%, to global proven oil reserve." I've wiffled about carbon capture and storage before: my current view is that it's only being so aggressively pushed because it fits neatly with existing oil firms' goal of pursuing enhanced oil recovery. (I don't think that's been done nefariously - it just appears to many to be a win-win option that makes politicians lives easier as well as fitting with existing firms' aims.)

So that IEA number: a 1% increase in average recovery factor would add 80 billion barrels of oil. The exec summary goes on to say that:

"Over the last 20 years, the average recovery factor from the Norwegian Continental Shelf has seen a significant shift – from 34% to around 46% today. // If the shift seen in Norway were to be achieved in all the basins of the world, it would double current proven reserves. A similar additional shift could be achieved by adopting EOR techniques on a much wider scale. Currently, there is a significant increase in the number of EOR pilot tests, especially those using chemical methods and CO2 injection. Examples may be found around the world, from China, Russia, the Middle East and North America to Argentina."

Double reserves? If a 6% increase is 80bb, that's a lot of CO2, eh? Here's the IEA CCS roadmap: "as long as fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries play dominant roles in our economies, carbon capture and storage (CCS) will remain a critical greenhouse gas reduction solution." The same arguments are made in the UK (PDF). Here's Ed Davey in the foreward:

"In the decades to come, emissions must fall while delivering more energy and more growth to a world hungry for both. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will play a vital role in helping us resolve this dilemma. CCS is the only technology that can turn high carbon fuels into genuinely low carbon electricity. It is essential if we are to meet the challenge of climate change whilst maintaining security of energy supplies."

The only way I see it becoming a 'critical greenhouse gas reduction solution' is where it's not being used to increase the recovery factor. CO2 EOR obviously does nothing for the CO2 from the fuel that it's enabling to be burned.

Can someone make a counter-argument? You'd need to be able to show that any stored CO2 (e.g. from power plant coal) used for EOR at least cancelled the CO2 output it enables. Is anyone doing that? Given they're talking about hypothetical doublings of output, I'd be surprised if this kind of venture can even hope to approach even carbon neutral, but that's just a hunch.

One might want to also argue that, by pursuing the technology, we'll open up new possibilities later - I don't find that very comforting, personally. There's also the counter-argument that you've locked us into a fossil-fuel based transport system. Which, of course, can't happen if we're serious about carbon reduction: globally, the transport sector is due to double in size by 2050, given its rapid expansion in developing countries. Global transport CO2 is currently ~14% of total CO2 output. Most government targets are using an "80% reduction by 2050" number (though many are arguing that needs to be net zero). Without decarbonising transport, it would rapidly end up moving towards and beyond 100% of our total allowable output way before 2050.

If the IEA's analysis of how CO2 EOR can change recovery rates is right, CCS could well be a lethal dead end. If I'm wrong, I have nothing against the technology itself, if burying CO2 is what it takes. But it's looking suspiciously like snake oil to me. Need to work on some numbers...

Cameron climate fudge is hugely dangerous

Cameron at a press conference today:

I think the point I would make is whatever your view about this issue, clearly we have had and are having some pretty extreme weather. So whatever your view about climate change, it makes sense to mitigate it and act to deal with that weather. That is the view of the whole government.

Sounds a little like Mike Hulme's recent take (discussed at P3):

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely)...

It doesn't matter whether humans are to blame? Makes sense to `deal with the weather' and not worry about anyone's views?

What idiocy. If humans weren't causing it - if these were just natural variations - there would be no requirement to cut carbon (or other GGHs) and we could concentrate funding on resilience-building. Decarbonising our global infrastructure is a gargantuan challenge - not an impossible one, but it requires all parties to understand the science. Without that basic agreement, we're going to umm and arr our way into a climate shitstorm.

It's hard to say from that quote whether Cameron is just fudging the word `mitigate' (which would mean actually dealing with the carbon issue) or was just blathering. I suspect the latter, given he's comfortable with appointing a class A climate Gish galloper to the post of environment secretary.

But his line of argument is hugely dangerous: `look, chaps - we all have different views, but let's just concentrate on dealing with the weather right now shall we?' We can persist with dealing with the symptoms for a while, but in the end if we don't address the underlying cause, the disease will overwhelm our ability to cope.

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