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D A. Ryan
D A. Ryan

George Monbiot and the enviro-neocons

I’m getting a bit worried about George Monbiot. At one time he was one of the sharpest orators within the left/green environmental movement. But I’ve noticed a distinct change in tone and I fear he might be doing a bit of “a Bellamy” (ironically enough for those who don’t understand that last one, check out Monbiot’s own post on the downward spiral of Bellamy).

Last month he produced a post labelled “We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all”. All this demonstrates is that George Monbiot never understood the crisis of peak oil to begin with (see Jeremy Leggett of Solar Century’s rebuttal here also in the Guardian).

Peak oil was never about some sort of scenario where it and global warming would sort of cancel each other out. While a small number of Malthusians (often referred to as “doomers” on the internet) do hold this view (they also tend to be skeptical of renewable energy I would note), they were always going to be disappointed. Even in an extreme post-peak oil scenario, cuts in fossil fuel consumption, notably coal (the most abundant and carbon intensive fuel) would still be required, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change. If Monbiot fell for such propaganda(and we can assume from his statements that he did), then he was always going to be proved wrong.

Peak oil is not about us running out of oil, but about us running out of the cheap easily produced oil. It’s not so much an energy crisis, but a liquid fuels crisis (or more to the point a cheap liquid fuels crisis, as discussed in the Hirsch Report). There is indeed plenty of oil left, as anyone who has ever read the reports of experts in the topic (such as Hirsch, Deffeyes or Campbell) would realise. But the bulk of oil that remains is concentrated in unconventional reserves that are difficult to extract.

A good analogy is to think of a fruit tree. Over the last century or so, we’ve plucked almost all of the bigger juicer fruits from the base of the tree. While at least half the fruit is still left, it consists of smaller fruit up towards the top of the tree (so we have to get a ladder to go fetch it down) some of which has gone rotten in the sun, so we have to work much harder to maintain output at the level we are used to. Indeed beyond a certain tipping point it will become physically impossible to maintain our current level of productivity, no matter how much time and effort we invest into the enterprise. Plus we’ll need to eat while plucking the apples, and soon we’ll be eating as many apples (or an equivalent food source) as we harvest.

Monbiot falls into the same trap as many neo-liberal economists fall for (so called “Cornucopian’s"), that of being mesmerised by the vast reserve figures for unconventional oil and gas. However, we cannot simply extract such vast reserves at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. As I’ve previously pointed out as regards Tar sands the output of oil from these is ultimately constrained by a host of factors, such as water and energy needs (there’s only so much of either we can provide in one isolated location at the one time) as well as a host of practical factors.

In a more recent article I’ve discussed the issues relating to Shale Gas production, and how it’s unlikely the US can supply any more than a 1/6th of its domestic gas needs or 5.6% of its entire energy needs from shale gas (my analysis being based on EIA and DoE data). Great news if you happen to have shares in the right company (or you’re a lawyer who specialises in pollution cases), but not much else. Indeed, shale gas drilling has recently been described as “a ponzi scheme” by leaked e-mails from within the shale gas industry itself.

Monbiot specifically brings up “tight oil” (which he refers to as “shale oil”). While there are indeed significant reserves of this within the Brakken Shale , however production of these is similarly constrained by various factors, as discussed by James Hamilton on the Energy Bulletin website and Robert Rapier of the OilDrum.com recently. One issue for example is (again) water availability, both for production purposes and to “flush” away the waste generated. Now while I’m quite sure you’ll find a few oil company executives who’ll see no reason why they can’t draw large quantities of the stuff from the Missouri river system and then use the latter as an open sewer (as the Tar sands drillers seem intent on doing to the Athabasca river in Northern Canada). But the many US cattle ranchers downstream, not to mention the tens of millions of US voters who depend on the river for drinking water will probably be none too happy with such a plan. So again, great news for shareholders....or lawyers!...but not much else.

Again, to draw an analogy, if we give Monbiot a teaspoon and send him to the shores of a large lake, while I take a kid’s paddling pool and a foot pump. Monbiot would have us believe that he can extract water quicker from the lake using the teaspoon, that I can achieve with the foot pump, just because the lake is so much bigger than the paddling pool. Now granted, if he and a couple of his friends bring enough spoons along and put in enough effort, they might be able to match a fraction of the water withdrawal rate I can achieve, but they’d probably get so thirsty doing it that they’d drink most of that water in the process! Large reserves do not automatically imply large rates of production.

Ultimately, the problem with peak oil is that everyone’s going to be disappointed. The “doomers” will find that decades (if not centuries) from now there’s still oil coming out of the ground somewhere (that is unless fossil fuels are legislated out of existence)...and probably a few rich fat cats still driving around in gas guzzling SUV's! The “cornucopian’s” will be disappointed to find that unconventional oil production is woefully in adequate (and simply too expensive) to match the demand and maintain business as usual, or indeed a growing world economy, particularly once peak gas also begins to bite. And environmentalists will be horrified to learn that even though “involuntary” reductions in fossil fuel consumption are finally being enforced, the much higher carbon and environmental footprint of unconventional oil and gas, means that carbon emissions might well continue to rise, as does the environmental effects of fossil fuel extraction.

Consequently peak oil is a crisis we ignore at our peril.

Nuclear Conversions

Similarly, George Monbiot did a bit of an about face as regards nuclear power, just a few days after the Fukushima disaster, as discussed before on Greenblog here. As anyone who is remotely familiar with the issue of nuclear safety would realise, declaring things “mission accomplished” just a few days after the accident is jumping the gun somewhat. Only someone who believed in a cartoon version of a nuclear accident (that the reactor would explode in a giant green fireball, sink into the sea and Godzilla would emerge from the ruins!) would reach such a conclusion so quickly (and again, one is forced to draw the conclusion that this is what Monbiot did believe!).

It will take years or decades after Fukushima for a true picture of the environmental impact to be established, much as is the case with Chernobyl. Indeed Monbiot tried to justify his position by using much propaganda from the nuclear industry regarding Chernobyl. He for example refers too figures that discuss the number of cancer cases from the accident, casually mentioning how many thousands got cancer as a result (many of them children), but dismissing their suffering, only focusing on the “body count ”.

Personally its the living victims I worry about, not the dead. I hate to burst his bubble, but cancer, even for a survivor, particularly childhood ones are no walk in the park. Many millions of Chernobyl’s victims, either those displaced by the accident or the liquidators (or their offspring) now suffer from long term health problems and live in poverty in various parts of the former soviet union. I know this for a fact as we used to have a local charity in Ireland that would bring the victims of Chernobyl over to the country to give them some respite. I remember meeting some of them and almost all seemed to have sort of serious health problem or deformity. The economic effects of nuclear accidents have also been severe. That Monbiot can so casually dismiss such a mass of human suffering speaks volumes about both his compassion – and his sanity!

However, I for one would argue that the most compelling arguments against nuclear power are the economics of it....or the lack there of! Quite simply put the numbers don't add up. I give a range of figures from different sources here, but sources I would directly cite are Citigroup Bank (hardly fluffy tree huggers!) and Dr Stephen Thomas of Greenwich university (his analysis of nuclear energy costs can be found here). In short, all these sources seem to conclude that it is doubtful that nuclear energy can compete with either future fossil fuel prices (even with added cost of CCS or the hikes in prices I mention above) nor with future renewable energy prices.

Furthermore there are practical issues that need to be considered. The build rate of nuclear reactors is currently too slow and it is doubtful whether many Western countries will be able to build reactors quickly enough to replace ageing plants (globally the average age is 25 years) as they go offline. Indeed, as I discuss here, even the historical maximum build rate of 30 GW/yr (in the late 70's or about 234 Billion kWh/yr of generation capacity if we assume a 90% capacity factor) would struggle to cope with the demands put on it by peak oil (i.e. it can only supply a fraction of the generating capacity we would loose each year in such a scenario).

Indeed as I also calculated here, nuclear power can only supply 11% of the generating capacity needed to cut carbon emissions by the 3% per year campaigners often call for (of course most now believe we need to cut emissions by 5-8% per year, which undermines the case for nuclear only further). So nuclear represents a drop in the ocean....or is that a teaspoon in a lake!

And if anything I’m being extremely charitable to nuclear above, as it is doubtful we can build anything like that number of reactors these days anyway! Modern reactor are much larger and more complex beasts. There are also a number of serious bottlenecks in the industry, notably that 70-80% of all reactor pressure vessels come from the JSW forge in Japan. So to be realistic, as things stand nuclear energy will struggle to stand still in the next few decades.

Incidentally, the installation rate of renewable energy was a combined 97 GW/yr in 2011 (I calculate that this represents about 566 Billion kWh/yr worth of new generating capacity, accounting for average intermittency rates, you will note that this is more than double the historical maximum for nuclear), with some forms of renewable energy growing in output rates by 50% a year.

Also while nuclear energy supporters tend to make hay out of the “intermittency” issues surrounding certain types of renewables, they exhibit “selective deafness” towards nuclear power's own issues with intermittency. Most nuclear reactors are designed to only perform baseload electricity. Although a few can do load following supply, a host of technical and economic reasons prevent them from being used for the all important peaking power demand.

Furthermore, electricity is only about 40-15% of any nation's energy demand (its about 20% of the UK's final energy consumption, about 17% globally according to IEA stats). The remaining energy use is met by “everything else”, mostly heating and transport fuels, with significant variation in demand for the latter on a daily and seasonal basis. Supplying either with nuclear power, in the absence of energy storage options, would be very technically challenging and make for even worse economic performance (as you'd have some reactors that only get turned on for a few hours each day a few months each year, again remember my assessment of nuclear above assumed a 90% capacity factor that you would now by sacrificing)....of course its the cost of all this energy storage and slack capacity factors that is typically cited by nuclear energy supporters as the reason that renewables don't work!

Finally there is the issue of long term supplies of nuclear fuels. Nuclear energy supporters will typically counter, by citing Thorium or small modular reactors. The NNL (UK's National Nuclear laboratory, again hardly guilty of “anti-nuclear bias”) have a pair of position papers out that largely pour cold water on such notions. While they do note one or two niche roles for Thorium or SMR's, but they make clear that neither can compete with the current regime of Uranium fuelled LWR's (so if the nuclear energy supporters are conceding that LWR's are not up to the task, then neither are these alternatives!).

Pro-nuke supporters (including Monbiot) will also cite the new Generation IV designs. I under took a critical analysis of these last year, a summary article of which you'll find on Greenblog (full article here). Ultimately my conclusions were that while these designs do offer some improvement on issues such as safety and reduced nuclear waste levels, this level of improvement is not nearly as much as the supporters of nuclear energy frequently claim. More importantly on the crucial headlines of cost and installation rates they are unlikely to offer any improvement at all - indeed its very likely they'll be more expensive and take longer to build!

The whole reason why the nuclear industry went for water cooled reactors made of steel and concrete & fuelled by once-thro uranium back in the 60's is that's the simplest and cheapest way of producing nuclear power!

The enviro neocons

In short, Monbiot, along with Baroness Worthington, Mark Lynas, David Bellamy and Lovelock (who recently rowed back from his past statements on global warming), represent a group I refer to as “the neo-environmental conservatives”, or enviro neocons for short.

 For those unfamiliar with the term “neocon” they were a group of left leaning political thinkers of the 70's who, largely are a result of the perceived failure of Kennedy and Johnson liberal reforms, became disillusioned and ultimately switched their allegiances to the political right wing.

Many gradually went from being in the anti-Vietnam/Cold War built up camp. Too advocating an even more aggressive Cold War stance, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan (in they're war with the soviets), the Star Wars system and ultimately the invasion of Iraq under Bush. They also made alliances with many ultra-conservative groups, notably the religious right, something which has largely led to the current state of US politics too this day (with elections fought on whether you “believe” in global warming or evolution (or one assumes gravity!), stem cells, gun control and abortion).

Now I would argue the problem with the neocons is that they never understood the purpose of Kennedy and Johnson's (or indeed Carter and Clinton's) liberal reforms to begin with. Indeed given that we've currently got a African-American president in the White House I would argue it’s a little unfair to call these policies a failure (quite the opposite!). I would argue that perhaps the problem was the neocons were conservatives all along, they just didn't realise it.

Similarly the enviro neo-cons have lurched to the right, now advocating polices that they would have previously laid down in front of bulldozers to stop (exhibit A, Monbiot’s own comments on nuclear from 2005). They've also formed alliances with many uncomfortable bed fellows, ranging from oil industry executives, neo-liberal cheerleaders, nuclear energy lobbyists and even a few global warming deniers. As with the neocons I would argue they've got into this position due to a failure to understand the issues and thus a failure to understand why the left/green movement is failing to make the impact we would all like it to have (for those of you who haven't guessed, its due to the effects of a 5 letter word starts with “G” and rimes with “seed”).

Like the neo-cons, the policies the enviro neocons advocate (notably nuclear) will in all likelihood have completely the opposite effect of what they hope to achieve. For example ,I’ve described in a recent article one of the biggest obstacles for Japan, over the last few years, has been how its single minded “obsession” with nuclear has distorted the energy market and effectively killed off any attempt to build a low carbon economy. And as I describe in relation to the UK, a policy of prioritising nuclear over renewable will inevitably fail to deliver the required capacity (why? read the links above), as we simply won’t be able to build reactors quickly enough....with the resulting gap being then filled likely filled with another generation of coal and gas fired power stations!

Indeed I would hope that Monbiot and his cohorts snap out of it soon....or, like the neocons, he may wake up one morning to find himself an adviser to an ultra-conservative government lobbying in favour of the mass exploitation of fossil fuels and the invasion of developing nations for their natural resources, all while humming along to Boney M!

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Almost forgot to include this dialogue between George Monbiot and Nicole Foss of "the business Insider" with regard to the peak oil issue. http://theautomaticearth.org/Energy/peak-oil-a-dialogue-with-george-monbiot.html

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