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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 27

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part III. The Power of America: Rooted in Dependency

Chapter 27. Where is the Energy of Hope?

In Kuwait City, on Kurdish lands, on the Shatt-el-Arab, in the ruins of Groznyy and in the equatorial forests of Nigeria, we are tearing each other apart for oil. This is truly astonishing on the part of a species that claims intellectual superiority over the other creatures that inhabit the globe.

Men are dying for ergamines! They are being sent into battle often without really understanding why. A more reasonable species might try to avoid living beyond the means of its own territory, or at least those of neighboring territories. But human beings are doing just the opposite: the richer the country, the more it depends, generally, on poorer ones to maintain its standard of living. The West has built a vast empire on the strength of oil from far-off lands. Logic does not enter into the equation - but strategy certainly does!

Whether we in the West are willing to admit the truth or not, nearly ninety percent of our energy needs are being met by ergamine sources that are often very far from our shores. And these sources are not renewable!

Since our desire for ergamines is leading us to war and away from human dignity, perhaps we should look for another type of oil, a little less black, a little less dense, and a little closer to home, that still might satisfy the cravings of those who seek to travel so fast that their shadows cannot keep up with them. Could there be an oil, a gas, or a ray of some kind that could supply us with the energy we need in sufficient quantities to keep us from killing each other? And why not an energy that would allow us to pursue our work without jeopardizing the environment? An energy that is clean in every sense of the word - an "energy of hope?"

A butterfly
handsome as a prince
displays its array of colors.
Its wings fluttering softly
it lands on the petals of a flower painted by the Sun.

An energy of hope does exist! It is all around us! The Egyptians worshiped the Sun God, Ra, for a reason: the sun brings energy and life. Its very rays, the winds that it creates to move across the Earth, and the falling rain that fills the rivers, are our most precious energy sources. Ocean waves are another. These resources are as renewable as the sunrise; they will not disappear with time. But all of them combined - sun, wind, and water - could never produce enough energy to replace the astronomical amounts of fossil fuel the West is accustomed to consuming now. Some corpocrats have even thought of enlisting plant energy - also created by the sun to nourish everything that lives - in the service of our fuel-consuming engines. A considerable amount of corn-based alcohol fuel - mainly ethanol - is now being added to the gasoline distributed in certain US states. Before it can be used, it must be processed and what the agricultural and petroleum corporations involved in this business do not say is that the ethanol egosystem, from start to finish, "spends more calories of fossil-fuel energy to make ethanol than we gain from it". {39}

Consequently, for an equal amount of energy, ethanol releases twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as does ordinary gasoline. It seems that, under the "trickle-down" theory, it is more important to feed cars and trucks from agriculture than to nourish people. Never mind that, beyond the American egosystem, a third of the world does not have enough to eat.

The problem faced by Western man in seeking an energy source to replace fossil fuels is, above all, a question of quantity. If Nature had not given us the ergamine triad of coal, oil, and natural gas, our lifestyle would have remained more tethered to the Earth, less "combustible", less "energetic", than it is now. We would never have adopted a way of life as ephemeral as the resources that support it.

Is there an energy of hope other than the one provided day after day by the sun that might satisfy Man, however briefly? Known sources that are capable of providing energy in adequate amounts in a time frame compatible with our needs are not clean - far from it - and cannot be considered energies of hope.

One of these is nuclear fission, with which we are all familiar. It is used mainly to produce electricity, primarily in France, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Finland but also to some extent in Germany, Japan, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada. {40} In contrast to fossil fuel, which our societies use freely without considering the disadvantages or limitations, today, the risks associated with nuclear energy are better known to the public. Compared to fossil energy, which is promoted by industry in the most insidious fashion, society can almost be said to have made an informed choice about its use of nuclear energy. The unresolved problem of nuclear waste is openly discussed, whereas the problem of global warming due to fossil fuel consumption is not even addressed by the world's biggest polluters, who thereby have involved the entire planet in a game of Russian roulette. Nuclear energy use is generating dangerous waste that we have yet to find a way to recycle safely and efficiently. We use it out of desperation because, unfortunately, it is the only alternative we have found to replace ergamines in sufficient quantities to produce electricity. It remains an "energy of desperation", although it has a long future ahead of it - until uranium, too, is depleted.

Another alternative source much talked about recently is hydrogen, on which politicians of all stripes have hung enormous hopes. The literature on hydrogen cannot seem to say enough about this miraculous gas. Even publications that are generally well informed about the environment have been taken in by this illusion. Not that hydrogen does not have positive qualities: its thermodynamic capacities and nonpolluting water vapor emissions are extremely attractive. The problem is that, unfortunately, hydrogen is not a primary energy source - it does not exist in a free state! It is not present on Earth in the same way that it is on the Sun or other planets like Saturn and Jupiter. On Earth, it is always associated with other atoms, such as oxygen in water (H2O), or carbon in petroleum hydrocarbons like propane (C3H8), butane (C4H10), and benzene (C6H6). Before we can use it, we must break its bonds with these other atoms by using a process that consumes a great deal of energy. Like electricity, hydrogen is only a secondary source of energy. In other words, one must burn conventional energies to free it. Moreover, the energy yield is not very high. In the entire hydrogen processing operation, we would have to consume more conventional primary fuels than if we simply used them directly, no doubt emitting more than twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or, in the case of nuclear-based electricity, generating thousands more tons of radioactive waste. The use of hydrogen carries other risks as well. It is not certain yet whether it is possible to build a safe, reliable distribution network due to its extreme fluidity. This is certainly not an energy of hope!

Hydrogen's real attraction is to corporations and politicians. It would allow automobile manufacturers to offer nonpolluting vehicles with a clean conscience. But it would do nothing to remove pollutants from the air - on the contrary, pollution would increase, its source having been discreetly transferred to the plants producing hydrogen. Use of this energy would allow governments to honorably promote a new egosystem even more complex than that of the petroleum industry, with hydrogen processing plants, automobile manufacturers and their cohort of equipment suppliers, repair shops, advertisers, banks, et cetera ... This new egosystem would lead to even greater industrialization and energy dependency and amplify the problem of global warming while doing nothing to resolve the problem of petroleum depletion. Hydrogen energy is a major trap. In a well-documented article in L'hydrocarbure {41}, Andre Douaud explains this very well, referring to the promoters of this new energy source as "hydrogen ayatollahs". One cannot help but appreciate his sense of humor.

There is another source of energy, far less known, that exists on Earth in massive quantities: methane hydrate, which has accumulated under the permafrost in the northern regions and Antarctica. It is present in even greater quantities in the sea, along the continental shelves, at depths of between 500 and 1,000 meters where pressures and temperatures ensure its stability. {42} The advantage of this resource is that it releases its methane gas very easily once it reaches the surface.

Unlike hydrocarbons, methane hydrate is not stored in the ground. Oil and natural gas are found in the pores of sedimentary rocks, which act like sponges under pressure. To release them, all that is required is to drill a hole in the rock and the pressure exerted by the weight of the Earth's crust will push them out. Or, if the pressure is not great enough, a pump can be used to pull them out. Methane hydrate, however, generally appears in the form of granules mixed in with soil constituents. These must be separated. Many oil companies have already considered going into the methane hydrate business; however, for the time being, it is not profitable. Let us hope that it never will be, because the amount of methane that could be released from the methane hydrate in the sea is immense. When methane burns, it combines with oxygen. There is so much methane contained in the Earth's methane hydrate reserves that if all of it burned, it would convert all of the oxygen on Earth into carbon dioxide and water vapor! In attempting to develop methane hydrate, we would also be releasing huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. You may recall that methane's heat-trapping potential, that is, its greenhouse effect, is twenty times greater than that of carbon dioxide. With the use of methane hydrate, we could certainly continue to develop beyond our wildest dreams and move into new realms of excess. But we would also probably trigger the extinction of life as we know it! So cross your fingers and hope that a methane hydrate egosystem will never see the light of day.

Dr John Francis Belz summarized the current situation best, when he said: "Enough is enough, that's why the elephant's trunk isn't any longer!" Let's not exceed our capacity to control the effects of our own actions. Regarding energy use, we have already exceeded every reasonable limit. Our rate of consumption is not sustainable. Nor is our Western way of life. Until we find an energy of hope, we must slow down! Can we? This is more than a question: it is a challenge that Homo sapiens must face.


{39} Richard Manning, "The Oil We Eat. Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq", Harper's, February 2004, 37-45

{40} Bobin, Nifenecker, Stephan, L'energe dans le monde, 39-41.

{41} Andre Douaud, "Hydrogene et la pile a combustible, mythes de l'automobile de demain?" L'hydrocarbure, no 226 (Summer 2003): 18.

{42} Kathleen Wong, "Fire in Ice", California Wild (Summer 2001).

Bill Totten


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