Tuesday, September 29, 2009
No Games Chicago led this evening's protest against the Olympic 2016 bid this evening in front of City Hall on LaSalle St. About 200 people turned out to say NO to the Olympic boondoggle. It was a cheerful, orderly crowd that included people of every sort, and the police monitoring the event were grinning broadly at us all.
I saw a number of familiar faces among the other protesters, including our own Lorraine Swanson of Lake Effect News, among the many media reps in attendance.
All our big guns are over in Copenhagen right now, and they must look just a little desperate to the IOC people, what with Barack and Richie and Michelle and Oprah in tow, while other contenders are represented merely by their heads-of-state- sort of like some pathetic social climber from the wrong side of town who has a wedding with 10 bridesmaids or something and gets a HELOC loan to buy a $40,000 dress and invites the mayor and the whole city council to her shindig. What with the country completely bankrupt on every level and fighting no-win wars on two fronts, you'd think Obama would have more pressing concerns, and GOP leaders are seizing on his junket on behalf of Chicago's bid as evidence of his lack of seriousness.
Let's hope they all make royal asses of themselves over there. Rio has come up fast and is now the front-runner. Brazil has guaranteed $14.4 Billion to cover expenses and losses, which is more than the other three contenders put together, and there is no significant opposition there.
This is no time to rest easy, though. Email President Obama and let him know that if he wants to throw some pork to his home town, that we have many more urgent needs than an over-hyped egofest for da Mare that will cost the public at least $4 billion and cause major disruption and displacement.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Certain environmentalists, whose cause is being championed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) are seeking to block the construction of a large solar power plant in the Mohave desert because of its potential environmental impact.
"It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy.
It's difficult to think of any means of electrical generation that has less environmental impact than solar, even wind, and the only thing either wind or solar have going against them is that they are outrageously costly, inefficient means of generating small amounts of unreliable electricity; and that there isn't enough land in the United States to fit the solar panels it would take to generate the power that the denizens of California guzzle in any given month.
However, everything bears a cost, and there is simply no way to generate large amounts of electricity without some environmental impact. There is also no way for a population of 39 million people to conduct any other activity pursuant to maintaining their lives without environmental impact, and even were all the denizens of California (and the U.S.) to relinquish modern life in favor of a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there would be far-reaching environmental consequences. We can easily imagine the desertification of the entire state of CA as its denizens cut down every growing thing more than a foot tall for firewood for cooking and heat.
The exasperated Gov. Schwarzenegger asked "if we can't put a solar plant in the Mojave, where in the hell can we put it?"
The moral of the story is, of course, that that there is no way to eliminate environmental impact except to maybe lie down and die. Will any of the deep ecologists volunteer to do this? Strange how the human-hating Gaia-worshippers who gloatingly contemplate the die-off of 90% of the species as resource depletion collapses us socially and economically will not volunteer their own lives by way of reducing the human impact on the planet.
People like Feinstein and the people at the Wildlands Conservancy have cost the environmental movement whatever credibility it ever had, yet never has human life been so at risk from environmental degradation and its multiple threats to the basic necessities of human life, such as our water and food supply. The only way to overcome the overwhelming hostility of the public to the concerns of the movement is to make concern for the human being the movement's central focus, for that is really what this is all about- to provide a liveable cradle for human life and to assure that our children and their descendents will have the wherewithal to live lives with a tolerable level of comfort and technological amenity. The point is not to avoid all environmental costs, but to manage and minimalize impacts as much as possible and to manage our resources so that we can continue to live comfortably and with basic technological amenity. For that, we need the cleanest and most efficient means of power generation we can devise, not the means we will be stuck with if we foreclose every means of large-scale electrical generation on the grounds that it may someohow, sometime, have some sort of negative impact.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Life Sciences Building, Room 142
1050 W. Sheridan Road, Sheridan & Winthrop, Chicago, IL
When: Monday night, September 28, 2009, at 7 PM
An e-mail blast from our Alderman, Joe Moore, announced a very important event this coming Monday night.
The 49th Ward Green Corps and the Rogers Park-based Eco-Justice Collaborative are sponsoring a forum on the devastation produced by coal mining and production to discuss so-called "clean" coal and the permanent destruction of the Appalachian landscape.
Loelei Scarbro from the Coal River Valley in Appalachia, an activist and community organizer with the Coal River Mountain watch, will be on hand to discuss the destruction wrought on this part of the world by mountain-top removal on the landscape.
Commonwealth Edison is considering closing two aging coal-fired plants here in Chicago, but Illinois is unfortunately spurning future nuclear development in favor of "clean" coal development. A 600 MgW "clean" coal plant is currently planned in Southern Illinois, while the moratorium on nuclear development remains in place. We in Illinois need urgently to consider whither our current energy policies are leading us, and whether coal is an acceptable alternative in light of the environmental destruction it causes, and most of all its human toll, whether measured by deaths in coal mines, illness and death caused by coal pollution, or the loss of the landscape that has supported a community of human beings for generations, Appalachia.
Friday, September 25, 2009
What Are Our Lives Worth: $1.4 Trillion More for Housing Rescue vs. $8 Billion for Dam Rehabilitation
The financial black hole opened by the collapse of our housing and credit markets keeps growing and threatens to suck every dollar of tax revenue we hope to realize for years to come into it with no offsetting benefit to taxpayers (least of those who rent and aspire to buy homes), and most of all at the cost of every other necessity, notably our emergency preparedness and our rapidly decrepitating Pharaonic infrastructure, to which a pittance, relatively speaking, has been allocated to affect urgently needed repairs on critically deficient roads, bridges, and dams. While nearly $1.4 Trillion of taxpayer guarantees have been extended to the housing market over the next few years, Congress is still debating whether to commit $8 Billion to repairs to dangerously deficient large dams whose failure could cost thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars in economic losses. The Wired Magazine article I linked speaks only of non-federally owned dams that have been "orphaned" by owners who've gone out of business. There is no discussion of the 600-foot or taller mega-dams owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, whose spokespeople glibly assure the public that most federally owned dams are in safe operating condition, despite what is known about a couple of its largest structures, notably the fragile 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam that nearly breached in 1983 and has been "shit-rigged" ever since, while the movement to decommission and remove the dangerous structure was quietly tabled by its owner, the Bureau of Reclamation, for unstated reasons.
Is the Glen Canyon really any safer than it was in 2007, when it was named one of the two most dangerous dams in the country, or is it just that there is no money available for the massive task of removing it?
Fixing the 1,800 large American dams that represent the biggest threat to human lives will "cost billions, but can we afford this in addition to roads, bridges, and other projects?" asks one recent article on CNN Money.
How could we even ask if we can "afford" $8 Billion to fix "worst-case" dams with their immense watersheds containing millions of people exposed to major flood hazards, in a context where we are committing trillions to propping up property values, modifying mortgages, and enticing new homebuyers into a falling market, creating yet another future wave of defaults in the process? The money spent on Cash for Clunkers could have paid for the repairs on a couple of the larger and more endangered dams, or for a number of critically deficient bridges. Can we afford not to make these repairs?
"Where food is dear, life is cheap", someone once remarked a couple of centuries ago, and the depletion of our resources and in tandem with an expanding population,falling incomes, and increasing internal divisions and conflicts, has dire implications for our future political and social climate. We seem to be well along the path so many other societies have traveled as they ratchet down the slope of declining productivity and increasing impoverishment, as we become more and more apathetic and callous in the face of rising crime, violence, and poverty.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
This article was a follow up piece to his previous post, Oil at 150:Celebrating Oil's Birthday, a short piece lauding the first drill in Pennsylvania 150 years ago and the ensuing discovery of the incredible power and versatility of the liquid that literally built the modern world and to which we owe every essential of modern life.
In his follow-up post, Mr. Epstein lamented that there had hardly been any comment on the occasion at all from either our opinion makers or oil industry leaders themselves.
That might possibly be because for the oil industry and for everyone who aspires to a lifestyle better than that of a 19th Century subsistence farmer, this is a time of grief, not joy, for the landmark Epstein commemorates will more likely be the industry's tombstone, and no one knows it better than oil industry insiders themselves.The most prominent Peak Oil spokesmen are, after all, alumnae of the oil industry; Colin Campbell and Kenneth Deffeyes are retired petroleum geologists who spent their professional lives in the employ of major oil producers, Matthew Simmons is a prominent investment banker and oil analyst, and former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who remarked on disparity between growing demand for oil and the ever smaller and less frequent discoveries of unexploited reserves, is the former Chairman and CEO of Halliburton. Each of these men, along with dozens of fellow executives and scientists in the energy industries, has expressed their conviction that we have arrived, or will soon arrive at, the peak of global oil production and the inevitable steep decline in available oil supplies.
And none of them, nor anyone else, can say for sure what will replace oil, but there is among them and other students of Peak Oil, the disquieting thought that there will be no replacement for it. And neither the cornucopians nor the "green"' promoters of renewable energy care to dwell on the thought.
I like Alex Epstein and many of the other intellectuals whose writings appear at The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, and intend no disrespect for them or the Objectivist philosophy that they articulate and that I share, when I say that their extremely linear logic regarding the necessity of oil fails to factor in a number of important points, like the possibility that we will likely have to do with a steeply reduced supply of it. Another contributor, Dr. Keith Lockitch, author of The True Meaning of Earth Hour, criticizes the movement to reduce carbon emissions because a steep reduction in emissions would mean a steep reduction in our lifestyles. His reasoning is likewise rigidly linear to the point of simple-mindedness: it says, our comfort and advanced technologies depend upon the ability to consume large amounts of fossil fuels, therefore we must have fossil fuels, and since we demand them they must therefore be available. Well, what happens when they no longer are available, or supplies are steeply reduced from current levels? Will our demand for them in and of itself produce them once every oil field on the planet is in steep depletion along with most gas wells and coal mines?
This is not Objectevist thinking, this is not rationality. This is wish-based thinking that refuses to recognize a distressing reality.
Unfortunately, Dr. Lockitch, Mr. Epstein and other writers at the Center have fallen into the Cornucopian trap that has ensnared most "conservatives", a variety of wish-based thinking that believes that just because our civilization badly needs dense, energy-intensive fuels in order to drive our advanced technology and supply the comforts and amenities that are the difference between a long, healthy life with opportunity, choice, and incredible luxury; and a life that's nasty, brutish, and short, that those fuels will always be there and that the market will provide them simply because we want them, need them, and demand them.
The "conservative" cornucopians are as in denial regarding the hard limits we are confronting as the "liberal" environmentalists and "greens" in their approaches to the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels and other essential resources, and just as irrational, and neither mode of thinking will help us negotiate the tectonic economic and social shifts that are sweeping the globe, and sweeping away our favored way of life and the assumptions we have based our thinking and planning on.
If ever we needed rational philosophy, this is the hour, but the latter-day spokesmen of the philosophy that supplies the epistemology that supports it and defends it are frantically evading it and denying the conclusions to which it would lead them.Evasion, denial, and emotion-based thinking are the hallmarks of irrationality and subjectivity, which are not only cardinal sins in Objectivist philosophy, but will lead us to the same place that they always have, and will defeat our efforts to retain our civilization and develop the techniques and organization we will need to cope in a resource-constrained world.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Many of us here in the 49th Ward of Chicago remember the role this unsavory group played in the hotly contested city election of 2007. ACORN activists worked to help re-elect the incumbent alderman, Joe Moore, and distributed "attack" fliers that slandered and vilified his opponent's supporters, including myself.
It's rather a shame, really. ACORN started out in the 70s as a grass-roots activist group whose mission was to help lower utility rates and provide affordable housing for the poor. Since that time, the group has degenerated into a blatantly political action group that advocates for favored candidates and engages in questionable and perhaps illegal practices on behalf of people who distinctly aren't poor or disadvantaged.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
If recent FHA loan generations and current FHA delinquencies and defaults can be seen as indications of where the housing market is headed, we can expect another costly home-loan bailout in a couple of more years, in addition to our current soaring default rate and the tottering $3.5 trillion tower of shaky commercial debt. Delinquency rates for recently-generated FHA loans are at 14%.
2nd Quarter Notices of Defaults were the highest ever recorded, and these were for loans that actually defaulted 6 to 9 months before the NODs were issued. Lenders have so large a backlog of delinquencies that many borrowers are in default a year or more before any action is taken against them.
The $8000 tax credit is just about to end, coinciding with the end of the selling season, and we will then see how durable the recent hike in housing sales really is. But it looks from here like the taxpayers will be paying for this recent uptick two ways, first with the $8000 taxpayer subsidy for new home buyers, and then again when these subsidized-down-pay loans start to default. Given that about 80% of all home loans being written now are FHA-guaranteed, that could mean another record-setting wave of defaults and foreclosures.
The Feds always were the most irresponsible lenders of all, inasmuch as the wave of bad lending was made possible by the alphabet soup of government agencies- HUD, GNMA,FNMA, FHA-that either backed or bought the mindboggling array of "creative" loans that got us into our current financial predicament. Now the FHA is THE irresponsible lender, and just about the only functioning home lender.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
My passionate support for nuclear power proceeds from my belief that it is the only way we will be able to provide adequately for the energy needs of our swollen population in the amounts needed to retain the basic benefits of modern technology, let alone real luxury, in the face of terminal fossil fuel depletion, the unacceptable costs and environmental hazards of biomass and ethanol, the need for steep carbon reduction, and the hard limitations on the efficiency and reliability of such "renewable" forms of energy as wind, solar, and geothermal.
One of the best of the nuke blogs, Atomic Insights, recently published a chilling article concerning the ambitious plans of this country's de facto owner, China, to develop the largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the world, in addition to its Promethean dam-building plans and ambitious coal solar power projects, such as the 25-square-mile, 2-gigawatt plant that First Solar is engaged to build there. While not all of these ventures are going to yield the hoped-for returns, China's dedication to exploiting every opportunity to develop its energy production and industrial base while aggressively pursuing control of the world's remaining resources, is indicative of its leadership's determination to remain competitive.
China is also buying futures on as much of the world's future oil production as it can, and more ominously, has drastically restricted "rare earth" elements that are necessary for high tech applications such as lithium ion batteries and numerous other high tech components. China and India are both rapidly developing new nuclear technologies, most importantly those involving smaller reactors with much safer designs that use fuels other than uranium.
In the meantime, the United States under Obama has completely curtailed nuclear development and is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in our corrupt financial system, as well as in attempts to manipulate housing prices upward and in propping up our obselete, failing automobile industry.
In short, China is stimulating its economy by investing its prodigious cash pile into the projects it will need to power its future, while the United States is racking up more unrepayable debt to sustain the unsustainable with the insanely destructive "cash for clunkers" program, $8000 tax credits for first-time home buyers, and insanely easy 3.5% down payment FHA loans, which already have a 14% delinquency rate. In other words, we've invested an untold amount of money in the next wave of defaulting loans and guaranteed another massive, costly bailout effort in a couple more years.
China, India, and other Third World countries are investing the industries and technologies of the future, while we are investing in the dead past.
China and India and other Asian nations are determined to remain as competitive and productive as possible, while we are turning our backs on every opportunity and misallocating our remaining wealth to efforts to resuscitate dying, obsolete, and even pernicious industries (like the housing-inflation and mortgage-fraud machine), and to starting another credit rampage, by extending more loose credit and paying people to buy cars and houses. In the same spirit, we are pouring our road stimulus funds into the very places where the population is sparsest and that generate the least economic activity, and into Bread and Circuses of various sorts.
The United States has lost its lead in almost every field of endeavor that matters. We are now quickly losing our lead in heavy electrical equipment, and lastly, we are beginning to slip in scientific research.
Most of all, we've lost the ability to re-invent ourselves. We're still very heavily invested emotionally in this country's glittering post-WW2 period, and have never grasped that not only was the prosperity of that era founded on an anomalous confluence of circumstances most unlikely to be repeated ever again, but was unsustainable from the outset.
This is the difference between societies that flounder after a few centuries, or even decades, while other cultures endure for thousands of years. Compare cities like NYC and Boston, who embraced high tech as their old smokestack industries withered, to cities like Cincinnati and Detroit, who continued to cling to the old early-20th century industrial model and as it withered away anyway, turned to government bailouts, corruption, and low-wage service industries instead of making the effort to rebuild their battered economies on a different template.
At this point, our book looks written. It looks like we're determined to squander every opportunity to build the industries we will need as we go through the biggest economic shift of the past 150 years, and are destined to become a deteriorated, fourth-world backwater with collapsed cities, ever-increasing crime, violence, filth, brutality, and disorder along with vaulting poverty rates with all the misery we associate with undeveloped countries This doesn't have to happen, but the window of opportunity is closing quickly. Let's hope our current leadership can find the mental clarity and political will to steer us onto a different path than the rut of steep decline we've settled into now.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Recent reports indicate that coal may not be so plentiful as originally thought, and that not only to we not have a "200-year" supply, but that coal production may go into terminal decline within a few years.
This may seem improbable to a lot of people. The United States is the second-largest coal producer in the world, and 48% of the electricity in this country is generated by coal. Moreover, this has been the cheapest way to generate power to date, even though it carries environmental hazards and costs that we now know we can no longer bear. Coal is surely the dirtiest method of power production ever, and the cost of building a coal plant with necessary pollution controls equals or exceeds the cost of building a conventional nuclear plant with the same generating capacity.
While consumption of all fuels in this country have dropped slightly due to the current steep economic contraction, global consumption of coal is increasing rapidly, with China and India being the largest consumers. The demand for electricity by these two most populous countries in the world will only increase as they continue to industrialize and more of their citizens aspire to Western lifestyles.
According to Richard Heinberg at The Energy Bulletin:
"future scenarios for global coal consumption are cast into doubt by two recent European studies on world coal supplies. The first, Coal: Resources and Future Production (PDF 630KB), published on April 5 by the Energy Watch Group, which reports to the German Parliament, found that global coal production could peak in as few as 15 years. This astonishing conclusion was based on a careful analysis of recent reserves revisions for several nations.
The report's authors (Werner Zittel and JÃ¶rg Schindler) note that, with regard to global coal reserves, "the data quality is very unreliable", especially for China, South Asia, and the Former Soviet Union countries. Some nations (such as Vietnam) have not updated their proved reserves for decades, in some instances not since the 1960s. China's last update was in 1992; since then, 20 per cent of its reserves have been consumed, though this is not revealed in official figures.
However, since 1986 all nations with significant coal resources (except India and Australia) that have made the effort to update their reserves estimates have reported substantial downward revisions. Some countries - including Botswana, Germany, and the UK - have downgraded their reserves by more than 90 per cent. Poland's reserves are now 50 per cent smaller than was the case 20 years ago.
These downgrades cannot be explained by volumes produced during this period. The best explanation, say the EWG report's authors, is that nations now have better data from more thorough surveys. If that is the case, then future downward revisions are likely from countries that still rely on decades-old reserves estimates. Altogether, the world's reserves of coal have dwindled from 10 trillion tons of hard coal equivalent to 4.2 trillion tons in 2005 - a 60 per cent downward revision in 25 years.
China (the world's primary consumer) and the US (the nation with the largest reserves) are keys to the future of coal. China reports 55 years of coal reserves at current consumption rates. Subtracting quantities consumed since 1992, the last year reserves figures were updated, this declines to 40 to 45 years. However, the calculation assumes constant rates of usage, which is unrealistic since consumption is increasing rapidly. Already China has shifted from being a minor coal exporter to being a net coal importer. Moreover, we must factor in the peaking phenomenon common to the extraction of all non-renewable resources (the peak of production typically occurs long before the resource is exhausted).
The EWG report's authors, taking these factors into account, state: "it is likely that China will experience peak production within the next 5-15 years, followed by a steep decline." Only if China's reported coal reserves are in reality much larger than reported will Chinese coal production rates not peak "very soon" and fall rapidly.
The United States is the world's second-largest producer, surpassing the two next important producer states (India and Australia) by nearly a factor of three. Its reserves are so large that America has been called "the Saudi Arabia of coal". The US has already passed its peak of production for high-quality coal (from the Appalachian Mountains and the Illinois basin) and has seen production of bituminous coal decline since 1990. However, growing extraction of sub-bituminous coal in Wyoming has more than compensated for this.
Taking reserves into account, the EWG concludes that growth in total volumes can continue for 10 to 15 years. However, in terms of energy content US coal production peaked in 1998 at 598 million tons of oil equivalents (Mtoe); by 2005 this had fallen to 576 Mtoe."
Here we have it: all fossil fuels are in decline or soon will be, and as they deplete, prices will trend sharply upward, and everything we do, make, use, and buy will become more expensive. Much more expensive.
While the fossil fuels that we're so heavily dependent upon deplete, our demand for electricity will most likely increase, especially if we electrify a substantial part of our transportation- and we will most likely have to do exactly that if most of the population is to have access to motorized transportation in the decades ahead as oil supplies become more unreliable and expensive.
Fortunately, there is nuclear, and here in Illinois we can be grateful that 50% of our power is generated by it. Generation 3 cold water reactors incorporate great improvements in safety and are now extremely safe, and can be built much more cheaply than the early essays in the craft, because of increasing standardization of design and mass production of parts. Additionally, newer nuclear technologies have the potential to extend the fuel cycle many hundreds of years beyond the horizons of our limited supplies of U235, while making use of spent nuclear fuel and thus reducing or altogether eliminating nuclear waste.
However, the future of nuclear in Illinois is very uncertain, thanks to the ill-considered moratorium on the construction of nuclear power facilities until the permanent storage of nuclear "waste" (more on that later) is "solved and the current emphasis is on coal-fired generation. A 600-megawatt "clean coal" plant is planned for Taylorville, Illinois, and the Illinois House of Representatives in May passed a bill that would require utilities and power marketers to buy 5% of their power from such facilities. The bill will go to the Senate this fall.
Will Illinois, the crucible of civilian nuclear power and the state most dependent upon it, resume its place as a leader in the development of nuclear, or will we make all the wrong choices and wed ourselves to fatal dependency on rapidly depleting fossil fuel resources, or on "renewables" such as wind and solar, that provide power only intermittently and at a cost that will render regular electic power unaffordable to 50% of the population? Decisions being made now will take generations to reverse, for generating equipment is extremely expensive, and plants being built now will have to serve for at least 40 years. The decision to eschew nuclear in favor of coal could condemn Illinois to increasing economic marginalization and deterioration, complete with further loss of manufacturing and commerce and vaulting poverty rates- and little hope of reversing those trends in our lifetimes.