A brief repose…

The VandeGraph will return to a normal publishing schedule once my graduate work is completed in September.

Thanks for your continued interest!

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Categories: Uncategorized

The Arctic Council: A Path Forward

ArcticCouncilThe Arctic Council held a landmark meeting this week, complete with notable attendees, major decisions, and significant agreements. The US sent Secretary of State John Kerry, demonstrating increased focus on Arctic issues even as they remain a non-signatory to the UNCLOS treaty. The group expanded its membership by granting 6 Permanent Observer positions to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, and Italy. The council of 8 Arctic nations (The A8) also signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, which commits countries to prepare for environmental protection and cooperation in emergency situations. This meeting, held in Kiruna Sweden, demonstrated the expanding interest from both Arctic and non-Arctic countries, but more importantly demonstrated success in international cooperation regarding geopolitical and environmental concerns.

The US, traditionally laggard in commitments and preparations for Arctic change, stepped up its presence and participation in two major ways. First, Secretary of State John Kerry attended the meeting, suggesting earnest engagement from the US. Second, the US released its National Arctic Strategy (pdf here) asserting national security, stewardship, and international cooperation as primary objectives. While a refreshing step forward for the US Arctic policy, its focus on security interests and associated economic interests has been heavily critiqued for lacking firm commitments or stated environmental goals.

During the meeting, the Council evaluated applications for Permanent Observer Status, and granted access to 6 new states, most notably China. China’s adamant pursuit of an Arctic foothold has been rebuffed by Norway and Iceland in recent years over economic and social issues, but their persistence has paid off. The European Union was not so successful as they have been granted a conditional appointment pending resolution of a seal products ban, opposed vigorously by Canada. These issues highlight the increasing weight of Arctic interests as they are now being used for geopolitical leverage.

My final note is one of actual impact, opposed to the political posturing mentioned above. The Council concluded with the signing of Spill Response Accord whereby the A8 nations commit resources and promise cooperation in responding to Arctic emergencies. The success of the Arctic Council in establishing a forum for transnational discussions stands as an exemplar of international negotiations and provides not only progress in dealing with global scale changes, but also hope that nation states are in fact capable of acting on global challenges.

Categories: Climate, Policy Tags: , , ,

Funding the Public’s Trust: Financial Impediments at the Forefront of Knowledge

Google Scholar searches only academic journals for scientific information. Results include direct links to journal pages where you can read abstracts for free, but unless you're logged in through a subscribed academic institution, you'll have to pay to view the paper.

There’s a certain irony in accessing the forefront of human knowledge: it’s behind a pay wall. In the modern deluge of free information, the most advanced information will cost you ~$30/article. When you hear about a scientific breakthrough, you don’t read the primary source because you don’t have access to it. Everything is moderated through a media outlet, CNN, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, Ria Novosti, Huffington Post, etc, which necessarily simplifies the information presented. More damningly I would argue, it obscures what actually takes place in those “ivory towers” and stops challenging people to understand science. Scientific reports (actual science) discuss the whole process of discovery whereas reports on science only discuss the results. Science is more than results, it’s a process, it’s a way of viewing, investigating, processing, and figuring out the world around us. It’s a lesson we understand as toddlers. As we stumble around, occasionally breaking objects and occasionally bones, we’re testing our environment. It’s how we understand the limits of ourselves, our species, and our world.

Another contradiction is that you’ve probably already paid for this research. Most science is funded by government agencies such as the NSF, NIH, ARC, NRC’s or indirectly through support of public universities. Public funding exists because we understand the importance of fundamental research, especially the research that bears no obvious commercial value. Science creates impacts only when its transformed into application. Imagine what we could achieve if we connected  the collected human knowledge with the collective human imagination. Websites like Marblar  are trying to make that connection, but we need more. Our society would only be enriched by making information, all information, publicly available.

Publishing scientific information is a tough business. There’s an extremely limited readership, peer review is time intensive, and increasing importance of impact factors only raises the pressure. In fact, most journals charge both authors and readers in an attempt to remain solvent, and still rely on voluntary peer reviewers. There is movement towards open-source journals with freely available articles, but generally these are limited and low impact resulting in little chance attracting or containing top tier research. Regardless, they’re a step in the right direction. Arron Swartz died trying to breach these financial barriers to knowledge, but true cost to society is much greater than losing one visionary.

Civilizations thrive on publicly available information. That’s why the library at Alexander existed, that’s why libraries still exist 2300 years later. Libraries are now in competituion with the pervasivity of the internet, yet the two informations are not exact substitutes. There is no filter on the internet which results in a flood of hyperbole, misinformation, and lies, yet the real knowledge is neatly kept behind a societal damn. We need to release the floodgates of knowledge.

Categories: Other Tags: ,

The former U.S. National Petroleum Reserve

Alaska's Protected Oil Reserves The US National Petroleum Reserve is being split, with half destined for conservation and half destined for drilling. In a below-the-fold headline last week,  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the new management plan which preserves sustenance resources and wildlife areas while capturing 72% of recoverable oil. The plan also allows pipeline development connecting the reserve with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, AK. The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NRP-A) was established in 1923 to ensure the military had ample petroleum if ever a global oil crisis arose.

While this is a highly intelligent development plan, it comes at an inconspicuous time. There is no global oil crisis: the hydrocarbon market is highly diversified and  well buffered at the moment.  There is no political uproar clamoring for this development, and while gas prices are high they’re not record-setting high. It does follow Obama’s campaign promises for lowering our dependence on foreign oil, but he’s traded considerable leverage for apparently no political gain. Every president since Nixon has touted the need to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil, but Obama is the first to do it. Furthermore, this increase in domestic production is unlikely to lower domestic gas prices. The only thing accomplished is the continued short selling of the environment. It’s probably inevitable that NRP-A will be drilled, but of all times to do so, why now?

Categories: Energy, Politics Tags: , , ,

The Implicit Laws of North Carolina

26 February 2013 Leave a comment

Last week, A North Carolina newspaper editor made a request for publicly available records of local concealed carry permit applications. The local sheriff Keith Lovin, who is legally obligated to provide those records, denied the request and posted the letter of request on facebook. This lead to public outrage, not for the law violation, but for the request of public information. Several days later and after numerous death threats to the editor, the newspaper retracted its request and issued a profuse apology. Furthermore,  this editor, a last patron of a dying industry, has now resigned and plans to leave the state because of the ferocious hatred he has received. Full details of the story are available here.

In a period of increased gun violence, dialog, and sensitivity (or arguably insensitivity), this level of outrage against a law abiding citizen is absurd. Instead of using this request to highlight what they see as an invasion of privacy and potentially creating a movement  to correct a state law they disagree with, they attacked the media, the one actor who could actually help publicize such a movement.  Furthermore, the lack of outrage or even acknowledgement of the sheriff’s violation is appalling. Our rights exist because the rule of law prevails. If we subjugate one law in order to protect another, then we have created a new set of standards with no guidelines for enforcement. I support the second amendment, but I also support the first amendment at its freedom of the press, for without the first, we will have no idea of when the second is actually being threatened. These implicit laws of North Carolina highlight the problems with single issue voting and lobbying, and reinforce the need for a well informed citizenry.

Categories: Politics Tags: ,

Privatizing Clean Air? Put it in a can!

30 January 2013 Leave a comment

Canned Air

China’s pollution problem is getting worse, but there is a silver (or at least aluminum) lining to the problem. Eccentric multi-millionaire Chen Guangbiao is selling  cans of clean air in a variety of scents such as Pristine Tibet, Post-Industrial Taiwan and Revolutionary Yan’an (though one seems a little more appealing than the others). Pollution levels have reached “off the charts” levels with 99% of urban Chinese breathing air the would be considered unsafe by European standards. Particulate matter is particularly high, exceeding  20 times the World Health Organization’s safe level.

Common resources such as air, water, and communal pastures have long posed a problem for environmental protection. The theory of the Tragedy of the Commons suggests that given a shared resource, it’s in each individual’s interest to deplete the resource as quickly as possible to maximize personal utility over others. The most common proposed solutions to such problems is primarily enclosure and privatization, or secondly regulation. China’s pollution problem falls into the Tragedy of the Commons category. China’s addicted to growth, and fears that regulation may deter growth makes it an daunting (though increasingly necessary) task. Privatizing air is an exceedingly difficult thing to do with such an ephemeral resource. Mr. Guangbiao has not solved the Tragedy of the Commons problem, but he has privatized a substitutable good. The same way hay is grown elsewhere and brought in to substitute for pasture, Mr. Guangbiao has captured air elsewhere and brought it to the market. This does nothing to rectify the degradation of the commons. This interesting approach has been referred to as “yuppie capitalism“, though profits are reportedly going either to the military or to environmental organizations.

China smog

Though this effort is too small, unfeasible, and unlikely to make any impact more than a novel news note, it does represent an increasing market for relief from our self-created environment.  This is a strange manifestation of environmental degradation.

Distilling Differences between Hydrocarbons

29 January 2013 1 comment

Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas are all resources of high energy density and have fueled various revolutions in disparate industries. While they’re often lumped together as hydrocarbons, they have widely different characteristics. Here is a brief overview of  some of those differences:

Formation: All hydrocarbons require vast periods of time for their creation. They begin by dead organic matter being buried and heated until they crack and form a particular hydrocarbon. While they are all chains of Carbon and Hydrogen (hence hydrocarbon) of various lengths, they are not simply the 3 phases of the same substance.  Coal is generated from the slow burial of ancient  forests, wetlands, swamps, and bogs. Oil and Gas are generated in lake or marine environments where plankton and other organisms are buried under water. Over the millions of years or heat and pressure transform this organic material into energy rich hydrocarbons that we extract and burn for energy.

Use: The 3 general physical states each type resides in naturally predisposes them to specific uses. Coal is a heavy, solid combustible rock; a good energy source, but not easily moved. This was the dominate fuel source of the Industrial Revolution As a result, industries developed near coal sources to minimize the transport costs associated with using the fuel. England and Eastern US, both rich in coal, prospered as industry roared to life powered by coal. Coal-fueled, steam-powered trains were the revolutionary mode of transport during the 1800s.  Coal is still the dominant source for electricity generation around the world. Later, oil became the dominant fuel type providing a wider range of transport options as well as many alternative uses such as plastic production, fertilizers, and lubricants. Natural gas is generally used for electricity and heat production.

Distribution: Due to the specific environmental conditions necessary for hydrocarbon formation, their distribution is not even across the Earth. Coal is a entirely viewed as a terrestrial resource as marine mining is excessively difficult and given the abundance of coal, there is no need to exploit marginal reserves. Also, being a terrestrial resource, the countries with large land holdings having the largest reserves (Top 3: US, Russia, China).  Oil and Gas are less abundant and distributed much more unevenly across the globe. While great reserves reside in the Middle East, Venezuela, Russia, and Canada are also among the 10 oil laden countries in the world. Also, given their liquid nature, off shore reserves are capture-able, making distribution even more complex.

Grades: Given the range of environments for formation, the quality of hydrocarbons varies widely between sources. Purest coal, anthracite, contains more energy and burns more cleanly that other, less pure types (bituminous, sub-bituminous, peat). Higher grade coals are mined preferentially over others so as coal use continues, the average coal being burned will become dirtier. Oil can form in various lengths of hydrocarbons  and has a more complex range of types because its liquid nature allows for the incorporation of other impurities. The highest caliber of oil is generally considered light, sweet crude or Brent Crude.  As the level of impurities increase, the value decreases, as is the case with Venezuela’s oil which has considerable sulfur content (referred to as Sour Crude). Additionally, longer chained oils are more difficult to mine and refine, as is the case with the Oil Sands of Alberta Canada. Gas, being light in weight is easily refined into pure forms of methane, ethane, and propane.

Transport: Given its heavy, solid nature, coal is usually transported by rail or ship and is traded on local markets due to the high cost of transport. Natural Gas, on the other end of the spectrum, is light and difficult to contain. It is usually moved via pipelines, though it can be converted to a more transportable state called Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Oil is the most useful and transportable hydrocarbon and  is generally moved via ship or pipeline.

Geopolitics: The varying characteristics and uses of hydrocarbons create dynamic geopolitical implications. The concentration of oil in unstable regions of the world has been of concern for decades. Every US president since L.B. Johnson has called for lessening our dependence on foreign oil. This has resulted in increased US production and deeper exploration into marginally located reserves such as in the Arctic. It has also brought alternative sources into production such as the Tar Sands. This brings to light infrastructure needs, and refining capacity. Very few refineries in the world are capable of handling “dirty oil”. The much-debated Keystone XL pipeline would connect the dirty oil of Alberta, CA directly to Houston and one of those few refineries that can handle it. Now with the delays from environmental concerns, China is making investments to increase its refining capacity for dirty oil in hopes to tap into Canadian sources. Similarly, Venezuela’s sour oil has limited markets due to refinery requirements. The US is the primary market due to demand but also current refining capabilities. China is not only increasing its refining capabilities, but also infrastructure investments in Africa in hopes of earning goodwill from oil rich nations. The easy transport of oil makes it a truly global commodity and unilateral maneuvering is unlikely to have great impacts on either supply or demand.

Coal will continue to be the dominant electricity source for decades still. China is increasing its coal consumption daily to meet the growing demands of its population. It’s also looking to neighboring countries for additional reserves to meet its demand. Even environmentally conscience nations are having trouble escaping the need for coal generated electricity with its dirty emissions.

Natural gas differs here too. Due to its reliance on pipelines and long term infrastructure costs, gas is sold in contract blocks between countries over decade long agreements.  The Russia-Europe connection highlights this fact and is exacerbated by soviet-era tensions of sovereignty mixed with needs for energy. LNG trading seems to be following the Contract-Block model thus keeping it from achieving global commodity status equal to that of oil. Japan is likely to become increasingly dependent on foreign natural gas, most likely Russian LNG, as it aims to reduce its reliance on nuclear power with few domestic power options to replace it. Additionally, natural gas booms in North America have depressed the price of natural gas over the last 5 years further altering energy calculations.

The diverse characteristics of hydrocarbons and variations therein create a complex environment for energy policy and decision making.  Understanding the nuance of different energy types will facilitate better utilization of hydrocarbon resources as well as more comprehensive solutions for moving beyond hydrocarbons.

Energy Consumption by Type

Categories: Energy Tags: , , ,