Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Coal is the new black

On new year's day, Robert Rapier won a thousand dollars. Rapier, an American oil engineer working in Aberdeen, had arranged a bet that oil prices would not reach $100 a barrel in 2007. As Rapier emphasised countless times on his blog and on the energy website the Oil Drum, he thinks oil should be $100 per barrel and more, because it is depleting much quicker than people realize, and we need to start adjusting to this fact; he just didn't think it would happen so fast.

In January 2007 prices were around $60, and Rapier thought that only a major disaster would make him lose (rapid production decline, or another US war). He was wrong: by November oil made it to $90 without any major catastrophe. The price hike had something to do with speculation and short gasoline inventories in the US, but mainly with what they call the "fundamentals" of the market: growing demand, and very tight supply. For regular visitors to Rapier's blog, like myself, the daily news of ups and downs of oil prices read like a thriller. I didn't want him to lose: he's a decent guy. "I feel like watching a car crash in slow motion" he wrote at some point, when losing seemed inevitable. He won, but with a whisker. On the second of January 2008 the psychological barrier of $100 dollars per barrel was breached.

In "normal" times, there would not be much in common between minks and Mr. Rapier. He works for a giant oil company. He believes in the law, and is not averse to capitalism. He shoots animals on holidays. His view of the world is judged, it seems, more by science and numbers than by words and the Arts. But these are not normal times. Under the double pressures of resource depletion and climate change, new alliances are formed; new understandings are reached. We all find unexpected fellow travellers; we all have to reach out of our bubble, out of our comfort zone. I find this aspect of environmental politics inspiring.

So what happens next? The exact arrival moment of oil-depletion awareness to the mass media and public is impossible to predict; and so are its implications. But one thing I have become convinced in recently is that the next big challenge is coal. Unlike petroleum and natural gas, coal is plentiful; it is found in many more locations around the world, "safer" countries, that is safer to the western energy-Moloch. Coal is about to make a big comeback. It is already happening: after 30 years, the UK is planning to build a new coal-powered power plant.

Coal will be used more and more for power generation; in the West, and in India and China. It will also be increasingly used for transport. The black stones can be made into liquid; this alchemical procedure was first used by Nazi Germany during the war, when its oil supply was cut off. Then it was used by Apartheid South Africa, attempting to ensure self-sufficiency in the face of an increasingly hostile world. This shady past is not a good start. If liquidised coal becomes seen as a panacea, these are bad news.

Coal is bad because its CO2 emissions are higher than oil or natural gas. Since according to the UN inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) we are within reach of the 2 degrees tipping point in global warming, beyond which the future is bleak, turning to coal would effectively mean an end to the climate change targets. The other old-school mass scale "solution" is nuclear power plants, with much lower carbon footprint, but they are hugely expensive and take longer to build. Coal really will have no serious competition in terms of price, the energy reward, availability and reserves.

So is the fight against Climate Change lost? In a recent lecture I attended "CO2 capture and storage" was presented as a real and only hope. That is, we'll be burning coal, but somehow the emissions will be captured and stored in a safe place - like former oil fields. The oil companies, after making a lot of money by getting the Ginnie out of the bottle, are hoping to make some more by putting it back. The technology does not yet exist, yet the lecturer was confident it is within reach. I dislike such promises, more so when the future of the planet is at stake. Furthermore, even if "Capture and Storage" works, I have an aversion to the idea; it means more or less business as usual. True, if coal will be used anyway, then capture and storage is better than nothing. But it is a temporary fix to a problem which cannot be solved without a major social and economic change. If we continue to burn our resources, to consume our world, we'll just hit the wall of consequences a little later. Coal is also a finite source, and if 9 billion people will use it, it will not last very long, however plentiful. In energy terms, the only long term solution is to move to renewable sources. It's simple, no? What is not renewable, will run out.

I believe that anyone interested in environmental politics has to prepare to fight the comeback of coal. There is an alternative: using less energy, and from sustainable sources. This will mean an economic slow down, which may not sound nice to those who believe in the round robin of over-production, consumption and perpetual growth , but they too will have to realize that one day the music will stop, and we will find ourselves sitting on funny plastic ponnies that can't go anywhere.

The scope of the oil depletion/climate change challenge means that we have to pursue broad alliances, and leave behind ideological puritanism. At the same time, we have to insist on the basic reasons for the looming catastrophe: not a natural phenomena but a human-made disaster, not geological constraints but a direct result of a wholly unsustainable way of life.

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