Posts tagged ‘hydrocarbons’

Best and the Brightest May Finally Be Open To Considering Lower Climate Sensitivity Numbers

For years, readers of this site know that I have argued that:

  • CO2 is indeed a greenhouse gas, and since man is increasing its atmospheric concentration, there is likely some anthropogenic contribution to warming
  • Most forecasts, including those of the IPCC, grossly exaggerate temperature sensitivity to CO2 by assuming absurd levels of net positive feedback in the climate system
  • Past temperature changes are not consistent with high climate sensitivities

Recently, there have been a whole spate of studies based on actual observations rather than computer models that have been arriving at climate sensitivity numbers far below the IPCC number.   While the IPCC settled on 3C per doubling of CO2, it strongly implied that all the risk was to the upside, and many other prominent folks who typically get fawning attention in the media have proposed much higher numbers.

In fact, recent studies are coming in closer to 1.5C - 2C.  I actually still think these numbers will turn out to be high.  For several years now my money has been on a number from 0.8 to 1 C, sensitivity numbers that imply a small amount of negative feedback rather than positive feedback, a safer choice in my mind since most long-term stable natural systems are dominated by negative feedback.

Anyway, in an article that was as surprising as it is welcome, NY Times climate writer Andy Revkin has quite an article recently, finally acknowledging in the paper of record that maybe those skeptics who have argued for alower sensitivity number kind of sort of have a point.

Worse than we thought” has been one of the most durable phrases lately among those pushing for urgent action to stem the buildup of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

But on one critically important metric — how hot the planet will get from a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of greenhouse gases, a k a “climate sensitivity” — someclimate researchers with substantial publication records are shifting toward the lower end of the warming spectrum.

By the way, this is the only metric that matters.  All the other BS about "climate change" and "dirty weather" are meaningless without warming.  CO2 cannot change the climate  or raise sea levels or any of that other stuff by any mechanism we understand or that has even been postulated, except via warming.  Anyway, to continue:

There’s still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a “benign” situation, as some have cast it.

But while plenty of other climate scientists hold firm to the idea that the full range of possible outcomes, including a disruptively dangerous warming of more than 4.5 degrees C. (8 degrees F.), remain in play, it’s getting harder to see why the high-end projections are given much weight.

This is also not a “single-study syndrome” situation, where one outlier research paper is used to cast doubt on a bigger body of work — as Skeptical Science asserted over the weekend. That post focused on the as-yet-unpublished paper finding lower sensitivity that was inadvisedly promoted recently by the Research Council of Norway.

In fact, there is an accumulating body of reviewed, published researchshaving away the high end of the range of possible warming estimates from doubled carbon dioxide levels. Chief among climate scientists critical of the high-sensitivity holdouts is James Annan, an experienced climate modeler based in Japan who contributed to the 2007 science report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By 2006, he was already diverging from his colleagues a bit.

The whole thing is good.  Of course, for Revkin, this is no excuse to slow down all the actions supposedly demanded by global warming, such as substantially raising the price and scarcity of hydrocarbons.  Which to me simply demonstrates that people who have been against hydrocarbons have always been against them as an almost aesthetic choice, and climate change and global warming were mere excuses to push the agenda.  After all, as there certainly are tradeoffs to limiting economic growth and energy use and raising the price of energy, how can a reduction in postulated harms from fossil fuels NOT change the balance point one chooses in managing their use?

PS-  I thought this was a great post mortem on Hurricane Sandy and the whole notion that this one data point proves the global warming trend:

In this case several factors not directly related to climate change converged to generate the event. On Sandy’s way north, it ran into a vast high-pressure system over Canada, which prevented it from continuing in that direction, as hurricanes normally do, and forced it to turn west. Then, because it traveled about 300 miles over open water before making landfall, it piled up an unusually large storm surge. An infrequent jet-stream reversal helped maintain and fuel the storm. As if all that weren’t bad enough, a full moon was occurring, so the moon, the earth, and the sun were in a straight line, increasing the moon’s and sun’s gravitational effects on the tides, thus lifting the high tide even higher. Add to this that the wind and water, though not quite at hurricane levels, struck an area rarely hit by storms of this magnitude so the structures were more vulnerable and a disaster occurred.

The last one is a key for me -- you have cities on the Atlantic Ocean that seemed to build and act as if they were immune from ocean storms.  From my perspective growing up on the gulf coast, where one practically expects any structure one builds on the coast to be swept away every thirty years or so, this is a big contributing factor no one really talks about.

She goes on to say that rising sea levels may have made the storm worse, but I demonstrated that it couldn't have added more than a few percentage points to the surge.

State of the Union: Apparently, Hugh Hefner is Responsible for Abstinence

My column for this week is up at Forbes, and inevitably, deals with the State of the Union address last night.

But the portion that really floored me was Obama’s taking credit for the increase in US oil and gas production over the last several years.  It is certainly true that, against all predictions of peak oil, new technologies have helped drive a surge in US hydrocarbon production.  Combined with a recession-driven drop in demand, America’s oil imports as a percentage of its total use has dropped to 45.6%, the lowest level in over 15 years.

This surge in energy production is a fabulous reminder of how markets work.  For years I have written that the peak oil folks were missing something fundamental by performing an overly static analysis.  They looked at current “proven” reserves of oil and gas and projected forward how many years it would take for these to run out.  But oil and gas reserve numbers only make sense in the context of a particular set of technologies and pricing levels.  As hydrocarbons run short, rising prices tend to spur both innovation and new, more expensive exploration activity.  Oil and gas companies are once again proving Julian Simon’s addage that the only true scarcity is human brain power, and they should be given a lot of credit for the recent production boom.

The one person who deserves no credit for this boom is Barack Obama....

Read it all.

Help Me Out, My Organic Chemistry is Rusty...

The Thin Green Line passes on an editorial from today's SF Chronicle:

California should continue to lead the way in the fight against climate change by requiring cleaner-burning fuels in this state.

The state Air Resources Board is scheduled to vote today on whether to force refiners and distributors to reduce the "carbon intensity" of the transportation fuels they sell, starting in 2011. The so-called Low Carbon Fuel Standard represents a critical step toward this state's commitment to reduce overall emissions of heat-trapping gases by a third by 2020.
Passage of a California cleaner-fuels standard would intensify the pressure on Congress to make a national commitment to promote lower-carbon options to gasoline and diesel.

Holy moly, I never thought of this?  It's brilliant!  Let's just legislate that hydrocarbons should have less carbon!  And tell the refiners to figure it out.

In all seriousness, assuming this is not just insane (which may be a poor assumption in CA) I presume they have something in mind here.  Does anyone know what opportunity they see, because I sure don't.  Here is why I am confused:

Basically transportation fuels are made up various hydrocarbon chains.  The shortest is methane, CH4, then C2H6, then C3H8, etc.  As the chains get longer, the molecule gets heavier  (for example, CH4 is a gas at room temperatures; C3H8 is propane, which is a gas but a liquid under pressure in our BBQ tanks; C8H18 is octane and liquid at normal car operating temperatures.)

Motor fuel is a careful blend of many different molecules, and is actually frighteningly complex (the above just discusses straight chain forms, there are also rings and other shaped hydrocarbon molecules).  There are literally hundreds of specs it has to meet, and several present difficult tradeoffs that must be carefully balanced.  Trying to make one spec can easily put one out of another spec.  So this is an optimization equation with a lot of constraints.

All things being equal, decreasing the carbon intensity of fuel basically means making it lighter, with shorter molecules.  Why?  Well, look at the molecular equations.  Basically a straight chain hydrocarbon is C(x)H(2x+2).  Shorter molecules get a higher ratio of their BTU's from combustion of hydrogen vs. larger molecules get a higher ratio of their BTU's from carbon.

So, it is correct that burning propane in a car vs. currently formulated gasoline will be less carbon intensive, with only the teeny tiny problem that most cars today cannot burn propane.  Modern engines are carefully built to run most efficiently (valve design, cylinder pressure and size, air mixtures, fuel injection)  on a certain range of gasoline, and that range is moderately narrow.  And, besides the pure physics of engine design, lightening up motor fuels will create a variety of secondary problems -- for example, lighter fuels tend to have higher vapor pressures and volatility that can cause vapor lock in engines on warm days.  Another way to reduce carbon intensity is to go from ring molecules (e.g. benzine) to straight chains of the same size, but this creates other problems, for example in maintaining octane numbers.

And speaking of unintended consequences, my understanding is that environmentalists like diesel engines, because the best diesel technologies today are far more efficient than gasoline engines.  But diesel is a heavier, more "carbon intensive" fuel than gasoline.  So is the carbon dioxide emissions from a heavier fuel in an engine that is more efficient less or more than a typical gasoline engine?  Who knows, and the answer is probably "it depends" anyway.

Update: I think I have figured it out.  The California legislature is going to mandate changing the size of the 2p valance shell, allowing more hydrogen molecules per given carbon molecule.

Algae have extraordinarily diverse sex lives

OK, I buried the lede.  The post is actually not the sex lives of algae.  But I was fascinated that CNN chose to list this among the "story highlights" of this article.  The story supports my sense that if biofuels are ever going to make sense, they are not going to be made from corn.  The story also reinforces the notion that biofuels are just another type of solar energy, though they are in fact even more inefficient than our not-there-yet solar panels in converting sunlight to usable energy.  The only reason biofuels currently look more economic than solar are the enormous operating subsidies and the much lower capital costs  (though even the latter is open to argument since biofuels have huge capital costs in terms of land, but that generally is factored in as "zero" because the land is already being farmed.)

Before you get too excited about algae, note from the picture that the algae at this farm is grown in plastic packets that I would bet my life require more hydrocarbons to produce than the algae inside them provides.

Fuel Without the Fossil

A number of years ago I read The Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold because I was working on a novel which included extremophile bacteria.  Gold's premise was that some/many/most underground hydrocarbons were actually produced underground from methane deep in the earth that is converted by underground bacteria to longer-chain hydrocarbons as they move toward the surface.    Many thought gold to be a quack, including most in the oil industry, but I thought his hypothesis at least intriguing enough to test.  Which someone apparently has:

An article in Science today seems to suggest that the abiotic theory is correct. In a fairly dense article entitled "Abiogenic Hydrocarbon Production at Lost City Hydrothermal Field,"
researchers Proskurowski et al., find evidence of the abiogenic
formation of short-hydrocarbon chains in an area where hydrocarbons
would not otherwise be able to form by the biogenic theory. What
Proskurowski et al. identified was the formation of carbon chains 1 to
4 carbon atoms in length, with shorter chains forming deeper, and with
isotopic signatures ruling out biogenic origins. The conclusion of the
article is as follows: "Our findings illustrate that the abiotic
synthesis of hydrocarbons in nature may occur in the presence of
ultramafic rocks, water, and moderate amounts of heat."

My sense is that we may now say a fraction of oil is abiogenic, but are a long way from saying that any serious percentage is of non-fossil sources.  But it is interesting.

Save the World -- Stop Recycling

My wife and I had our familiar recycling argument this weekend (Wife:  You need to put that stuff in the recycling;  Me:  Recycling makes zero sense for anything except scrap steel and aluminum, all the rest is just a liturgy of belief we perform for the church of the environment, where labor costs are assumed to be zero).

Anyway, thinking about it more, I have had a revelation.  If we define our biggest environmental problem as CO2 production,shouldn't we stop recycling of plastic and paper?  In the first case, we are burying hydrocarbons unburned, putting the carbon back underground.  Each bottle not recycled represent a few more hydrocarbon molecules that must be dedicated to plastics rather than fuel.  In the case of paper, if we don't recycle then we are using trees to sequester CO2 and bury it back in the ground as paper and cardboard.  Once trees hit their maturity, their growth slows and therefore the rate they sequester CO2 slows.  At this point, we need to be cutting more down, not less, and burying them in the ground, either as logs or paper or whatever.  Just growing forests is not enough, because old trees fall over and rot and give up their carbon as CO2.  We have to bury them.   Right?

Yeah, I know it's silly, but is it any more silly than this:

In the last few months, bottled water "” generally
considered a benign, even beneficial, product "” has been increasingly
portrayed as an environmental villain by city leaders, activist groups
and the media. The argument centers not on water, but oil. It takes 1.5
million barrels a year just to make the plastic water bottles Americans
use, according to the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, plus
countless barrels to transport it from as far as Fiji and refrigerate
it. ...

Dave Byers, 65, from Silver Spring,
Md., discussed the issue with his wife, Pat, on the steps of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art on a 90-degree Saturday. "I think it should
be banned, actually," he said of bottled water.

If you care about the environment, I say buy more bottled water, and throw the bottle away.  You too can sequester some carbon.