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US Open Finals & Climate Crisis Town Hall

I’ve been watching tennis for a long time. The US Open has come down to two compelling finals. In one, Serena Williams faces Bianca Andreescu. By winning, Serena could tie Margaret Smith Court’s record of 24 wins in majors. Eleven of Court’s titles were Australian Opens during an age when not all the players chose to take the long flight down under – but she did win them. But Court’s homophobic religious views have become extremely unpopular inside and outside the locker room, so a lot of tennis people want Serena to consign her to the history books.

Andreescu, though, is a solid player. Just a teenager, she moves well, hits hard off both sides, and competes well, having mowed down every top ten player she’s faced in the last several months. She’ll be tough to beat.

On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal seeks to move to only one win behind Roger Federer’s twenty major titles, with the realistic prospect of winning another Roland Garros next year. After a tired-looking loss to Grigor Dimitrov, Federer’s chances of extending his lead seem about as compelling as his spaghetti commercials. Opposing finalist Daniil Medvedev is fast, powerful and a strong competitor, but has a history of behaving poorly on court, so the wealthy crowd will likely be rooting for Rafa.

Who will win? One strategy is to minimize errors, another is to go for winners, but tennis seems to come down to a balance of consistency and aggression. You can’t just get the ball back in play, but you also can’t give the opponent lots of free points by going for winners on every shot. And, you have to deal with the increasingly intense summer heat.

A few days ago, CNN hosted a Climate Crisis Town Hall for all the major Democratic presidential candidates except Tulsi Gabbard, who is on military duty. Climate activists wanted there to be a climate change-themed debate, but the always timid Democratic National Committee wouldn’t allow it. So instead – over seven hours – each candidate was interviewed in a town hall format by CNN anchors and concerned citizens with prepared questions. In past town halls, these “ordinary citizens” have turned out to have industry connections or concealed agendas, but this batch seemed mostly on point. In fact one flummoxed Joe Biden by asking about him attending a fossil fuel-sponsored event directly after the Town Hall. I’m still amazed CNN let that happen.

Who won the Town Hall? Well, as in the debates, the tone was essentially set by the progressives. Naomi Klein considered it a victory to simply have the words Climate Crisis in large red letters on television. With category 3 Superstorm Sandy shocking NorthEast elites and category 5 hurricanes like Matthew, Irma, Maria, Michael and now Dorian becoming yearly events, even conservative people are realizing that severe weather events are occurring much more frequently than ever before.

How do you win a town hall? Most of the candidates tried to minimize errors, reciting the green talking points they learned from Governor Jay Inslee, who recently ended his candidacy. Some candidates assured us we could still eat hamburgers and use plastic straws – business as usual – while they pursued some incarnation of a Green New Deal.

Several candidates pledged to eliminate waste, or increase efficiency in this or that, which sounds good on the surface. But there will always be a certain level of inefficiency in human endeavors. After hearing decade upon decade of such pledges, I now take them as a veiled promise to not structurally change the status quo.

“Whether they need it or not, government always spends the money it is allotted,” is a standard issue talking point, one I’ve heard since I worked a summer job for county government. Accordingly, Julian Castro recounted an anecdote about Air Force pilots dumping their fuel in the ocean to maintain a yearly allotment of fuel.

Only Bernie Sanders actually went for his shots. Unfortunately for his candidacy, Sanders is proposing to revamp several of our major industries – government/lobbyists, banking, military, pharmaceuticals, insurance, automobiles, prisons – and while he assures us that the workers in those industries are not his enemies, management of those industries will certainly see Sanders as their enemy, as does management of the major media. It remains to be seen whether the Sanders plain-spoken populist agenda constitutes an error or a winner.

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Robots Need Power

I’m seeing a lot of articles predicting a future determined by Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I grew up watching animated cartoons and live action shows featuring both metal robots and human-looking androids. Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy featured a robot intended to replace the inventor’s dead son, and in The Living Doll, Julie Newmar played Rhoda the Robot for laughs and sex appeal. Since this was fiction, both robots had lots of unexpected personality, and we related to them as sympathetic characters. But at the same time, children’s TV shows often used robots as villains because a hero could destroy scads of them without coming off as a callous killer, or running afoul of the TV codes against violence.

I later read Asimov’s stories about robots programmed to obey three embedded laws to ensure human superiority. In other science fiction stories, robots were often a threat, often superior to, and sometimes hostile to humans. Think of the giant robot, Gort, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

And now we are being warned that robots are going to take away our jobs. We are also being warned that computer systems using AI are going to manage our lives. I’ve been skeptical of both of these ideas, but there is no doubt that each is happening in the short term, though in limited ways. Robots are used in manufacturing, in check out lines and may even drive us around in cars. AI seems poised to permeate internet marketing and inventory operations, even to monitor our every shopping whim.

But unlike Commander Data, these systems require electricity. Right now we create most electricity by burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas, and some by splitting atoms in nuclear power plants. We generate a negligible amount of power with wind and solar, but not enough for industrial robots or AI server farms.

And there’s the rub. Almost everything we do to generate power creates more of the greenhouse gases that drive man-made climate change. Are the oligarchs going to cut back on electricity to combat climate change? Not willingly, I suspect.

To make up for dwindling conventional oil reserves, we have increasingly turned to the mining of tar sands, hydraulic fracturing , and ‘clean’ coal. Hanford, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have damaged any public feeling that reactors are safe, but more importantly, less famous reactors around the US have frightened away investors by being persistently unprofitable.

Yet, a smattering of recent OpEd pieces advise the US to retool and try again with nukes. A Yale Environment 360 article reframes the well-known nuclear disasters as acceptable risks compared to those associated with extracting or mining fossil fuels. Wired Magazine predicts that Next Gen nuclear designs – many using molten salt – will be inherently safer than the ones that failed so famously.

I’m not happy about it, but given the dismal reports from the oil markets, I do expect that the US will turn to nuclear power again in the near future.

 

Nuclear Plant Builder in Chapter 11

As we debate climate change, someone always steps forward to claim that only some form of nuclear fission or fusion can keep the lights on. Nuclear power, they say, is safer and cleaner than burning fossil fuels.

But first, nuclear wastes have half-lives in the thousands of years. Second, nuclear power plants are so *not* profitable that only governments or utilities using public money can be induced to finance them.

Westinghouse Nuclear, owned by Toshiba, had tried to guarantee a fixed cost for four new projects, and is now going bankrupt as a result:

Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC, a U.S. company, and certain of its subsidiaries and affiliates, today filed voluntary petitions under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The Company is seeking to undertake a strategic restructuring as a result of certain financial and construction challenges in its U.S. AP1000® power plant projects.

… The DIP financing will fund Westinghouse’s core businesses of supporting operating plants, nuclear fuel and components manufacturing and engineering as well as decommissioning, decontamination, remediation and waste management as the company works to reorganize around these strong business units.

From the New York Times, Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power:

The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South. Now, the future of those projects, which once seemed to be on the leading edge of a renaissance for nuclear energy, is in doubt.

… The power companies — Scana Energy in South Carolina and a consortium in Georgia led by Georgia Power, a unit of Southern Company — would face the possibility of new contract terms, long lawsuits and absorbing losses that Toshiba and Westinghouse could not cover, analysts say. The cost estimates are already running $1 billion to $1.3 billion higher than originally expected, according to a recent report from Morgan Stanley, and could eventually exceed $8 billion over all.

… Using simplified structures and safety equipment, [AP1000] was intended to be easier and less expensive to install, operate and maintain. Its design also improves the ability to withstand earthquakes and plane crashes and is less vulnerable to a cutoff of electricity, which is what set off the triple meltdown at Fukushima.

Bring Out Yer Dead

Bloomberg claims, Here’s One Sign That ‘Peak Oil’ Is Dead

Peak Oil: gone and forgotten? Google Inc. searches for the idea that once helped propel oil prices to nearly $150 per barrel have dwindled to almost nothing, according to a Sanford C. Bernstein analysis.

Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway asserts that a dearth of google searches proves that no one – except maybe Bloomberg – cares about Peak Oil anymore. But another way of looking at it is that Peak Oil already happened, and we’ve all moved on. The peak in production of conventional oil reached a plateau in 2005. Prices increased rapidly, but instead of the Mad Max scenarios predicted by energy depletion gurus, civilization instead endured a Great Recession, reduced its demand for oil, and stumbled on, albeit with great pain and suffering for many. Meanwhile, energy companies continued their shift to alternate methods of extraction.

In places like Athabasca, Canada, companies mine bitumen from sandstone deposits, called tar sands, and use natural gas to heat and process it into a high quality synthetic petroleum. The environmental cost, though, is comparable to removing mountaintops to mine coal. The risks of transporting Dilbit led to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, and other dirty byproducts, such as Pet Coke, are sold as fuel to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

In America and other countries, companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract so-called “Tight Oil”, or “Shale Oil” from shale or sandstone deposits. Fracturing, though, pollutes enormous quantities of water, seems to cause earthquakes, and has been banned in some areas.

America also extracts kerogen from what is called “Oil Shale” – a mix of sedimentary rock and organic matter – and converts it to synthetic crude and various dirty, lower-grade fuels.

These extraction methods were and are, however, expensive, and only made economic sense when oil was also expensive. Energy companies accumulated a great deal of debt using these techniques, only to find that the bottom had dropped out of the market. Moody’s Investor Services described US Oil bankrupties as “catastrophic”:

Oil Bankruptcies Leave Lenders With ‘Catastrophic’ Recovery Rate

Creditors are recovering an average 21 percent of what they lent, compared with about 59 percent in past decades, the credit-rating agency said Monday in a report that looks into lending to 15 exploration and production companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015. … High-yield bonds recovered a mere 6 percent, compared to 30 percent in previous years going back to 1987.

Defaults in the oil and natural gas industry have been rising through a market slump that has exceeded two years as companies lacked the cash to make interest payments on their debt. Bankruptcies among U.S. producers so far this year are about twice the number among companies rated by Moody’s in all of 2015, the report said. The oil and gas figures have helped propel U.S. corporate defaults to the highest since 2009.

Less than half of the companies that negotiated distressed-debt exchanges in 2015 to try to stave off bankruptcy succeeded …

If Peak Oil is dead, why is the Oil Industry now coughing up blood?

Update 20160922: Robert Rapier has a post claiming that conventional oil did begin a decade long production plateau in 2005, but that there was a slight increase from that plateau in December of 2014.

Chernobyl after thirty years

Thirty years ago, the staff running a test on reactor #4 at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR were reading unexpectedly high radiation levels. They debated stopping the test, but decided to keep going to find the limits. When the temperature readings climbed too high as well, they tried to shut the reactor down by inserting carbon rods.

There was, however, a design flaw, known by upper levels in the government, but not by the staff doing the testing. Inserting those rods somehow increased the reaction, increasing the heat. Containment water became steam, the roof of the reactor blew off and some ten tons of radioactive uranium became airborne, and was carried southeast, contaminating a large swath of Europe.

McClatchy has a very good article, Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years, in which they actually mention other nuclear accidents:

What they figured out was the worst nuclear-energy disaster in human history, far worse than the explosion at Kyshtym nuclear complex in 1957 in what was then the Soviet Union, which released 70 tons of radioactive material into the air, or the 1957 fire at the Windscale Nuclear Reactor in northwestern England, which forced a ban on milk sales for a month, or the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1979, where a cooling malfunction led to a partial meltdown.

There are also persistent leaks threatening groundwater at Hanford in the US, and the ongoing Fukushima disaster in Japan.

CNN tries to consign the radiation problems to history, offering more upbeat articles about Chernobyl. In Meet the New Face of Chernobyl they focus on fetching young Yulia, who lives in a nearby community, Slavutych, and was chronicled over three years by Swiss photographer Neils Ackermann:

Ackermann isn’t interested in making you sit through another telling of that tragic tale about the firefighters who couldn’t put out the flames in 1986, or the technicians who failed to stop the poisonous radioactive particles from escaping the facility and raining down on nearby residents.

Instead, he wants to introduce you to Yulia.

“She’s intense, like an energy bomb,” Ackermann said, describing the 23-year-old woman he met in 2012. At the time, Yulia was kissing a man in a park in the center of Slavutych, a town near Chernobyl built for disaster evacuees.

Yulia was born three years after the disaster. Ackermann once asked her what she thought about its consequences. “She was looking at me like it was a really stupid question,” he recalled. “Because now, the scale of health consequences resulting from radioactivity in Slavutych are much more limited than what we may think about in the West.” Slavutych residents who work in Chernobyl are protected by strict control systems. The town’s attitude about radioactivity is much more realistic and pragmatic than it would be elsewhere. One young man showed Ackermann the tomb of his best friend in a cemetery and said more people in town die because of drugs and alcohol than radioactivity.

In another article, CNN emphasizes the precautions taken as Ukraine builds a new arched structure over the decrepit sarcophagus that was built quickly after the explosion. This New Safe Confinement structure is supposed to last at least one hundred years, but the buried mass will be a threat for at least three thousand years, so I wonder who will build the next thirty structures?

Who Are the Saudis Hurting?

It was big news in 2014 when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) convinced other members of OPEC to lower oil prices, and several theories were put forth to explain it. On Jan 22, 2016, in, It Really Was A Trillion Dollar Blunder, Robert Rapier, who used to comment on The Oil Drum, wrote:

Because they were losing market share — but perhaps more importantly because they saw that trend continuing — that strategy was abandoned at their November 2014 meeting. It was then that OPEC announced they would defend market share that was being lost due to the rise of non-OPEC production, especially from the United States. Some have argued that OPEC had no choice but to defend market share instead of cutting production to balance the market, but I disagree. I think Saudi Arabia pushed for a strategy that will go down as one of the greatest mistakes in OPEC’s history. It was a decision, I might add, that 9 of the 13 OPEC members reportedly oppose.

Since 2014, US, Canadian, Russian, Venezuelan, Nigerian, Angolan and other oil producers have suffered. FiveThirtyEight claims, Saudi Arabia Is Winning Its War Against The U.S. Oil Industry:

Recently, though, there have been signs that the Saudis’ strategy might be working after all. On Monday, Chesapeake Energy, once the highest flier of the U.S. oil boom, had to deny publicly that it was preparing to file for bankruptcy; some 60 oil companies have already done so, and the research firm IHS estimates that as many as 150 companies could follow suit. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that private-equity giant KKR & Co. was backing away from risky bets on oil companies. Industry leaders are starting to sound desperate: The New York Times quoted the head of a Texas oil group as telling his members that “today our goal is to survive.”

FiveThirtyEight, though, says nothing about the effect of low prices on Saudi Arabia itself, which has looked into nationalizing Saudi Aramco. That has been seen by many as a sign of weakness.

Yahoo Finance has an OilPrice article, The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy, claiming that KSA’s target was not the US, but rival suppliers of China and other emerging markets.

The view that the Saudi market share strategy is focused on crushing the U.S. shale industry has led market observers obsessively to await the EIA’s weekly Wednesday petroleum status report and Baker-Hugh’s weekly Friday U.S. rig count—and to react with dismay as U.S. rig count has dropped, but production remained resilient.

In fact, they might be better served welcoming resilient U.S. production. It may be that the Saudis will not change course until Russian output declines, Iraq’s stagnates, Iran’s output growth is stunted—and that receding output from weaker countries within and outside OPEC would not be enough. If this is case, the Saudis will see resilient U.S. production as increasing pressure on their competitors and bringing forward the day when they can contemplate moderating their output.

I don’t think we’ve seen a full explanation yet, but it is certainly too soon to proclaim victory for any particular party.

Cheap Oil a Mixed Blessing

In his article, With Oil at $36/barrel, Have Democrats just Won the Presidency?, Juan Cole offers a fairly sound discussion of the oil price situation:

The price of petroleum fell Monday to levels not seen since the crash of 2008, at one point hitting $35 a barrel in New York.

There is every reason to expect prices to remain low for a few years, and they could easily go lower as Iranian crude comes back on the market with the end of UN sanctions early next year.

One question here is whether low gasoline prices help the Democratic nominee?

What Cole certainly knows, but doesn’t get into, is that while they might be good news for Bernie or Hillary, and for pickup truck dealers, low gasoline prices represent mixed news for the climate. On the one hand, low prices means low demand, which should mean less burning of oil in vehicles. On the other, the remainder of the prosperous middle class will have little incentive to drive less or drive more efficient vehicles.

The middle class both consumes and pollutes at a greater rate than the poorer classes. Despite the many articles about the shrinking of the American middle class, there are still enough of us to release a great deal of carbon.