Sunday, July 24, 2016

Are you anti-science if you don't like GMOs?

It's all the rage to call people who oppose the cultivation of genetically engineered crops anti-science. But if science is an open enterprise, then it should welcome discussion and challenges to any prevailing idea.

We should, however, remember that in this case genetic engineering of crops is not merely a scientific enterprise; it's big business. A lot of people have a lot to lose if the public rejects genetically engineered foods, often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). We are not by any measure in the preliminary phases of this technology. We are not considering it or calmly debating it before its release. We have long since been launched into an uncontrolled mass experiment, the results of which are unknown.

Knowledge is admittedly a double-edged sword. One might argue that any scientific advance brings risks. I would agree. Understanding nuclear fission and then nuclear fusion led to the atomic bomb and then the hydrogen bomb.

More than 30 years ago millions of people across the world flocked to the nuclear freeze movement out of fear that newly elected American president Ronald Reagan would seek a nuclear buildup and a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Were these millions anti-scientific or the voice of reason?

Nuclear discoveries also led to the widespread application of nuclear fission as a source of heat for electricity generating plants, the dangers of which have most recently been on display at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. The results of our grand nuclear experiment are ongoing.

Opposition to practical applications of scientific discoveries cannot willy nilly be labeled anti-science. We now know how to clone humans, but so far, human society has chosen to prohibit this use of cloning. One does not have to be anti-science to mount a reasoned case for such a prohibition. The American Association for the Advancement of Science opposes reproductive cloning, while supporting stem cell research and research on therapeutic cloning (the production of replacement tissues for humans).

The vast majority of those who want GMO foods labeled or their cultivation banned do not advocate an end to genetic research. They are not anti-scientific. They have legitimate concerns about the safety of crops derived from a specific application of this research, both for humans and for the broader environment.

Let's see if the arguments used to label those who oppose GMOs as anti-science make sense.

1. Lots of prominent scientists endorse the safety and promise of GMOs.

This argument was most recently trotted out as a petition directed at Greenpeace, asking the organization to cease its opposition to GMOs and more specifically to what is called Golden Rice, a rice that produces its own Vitamin A. (Vitamin A deficiency remains a problem in parts of Asia).

It is understandable that those involved in a political debate over the regulation and even prohibition of GMOs will seek visible shows of support from others who are like-minded. This is part of the persuasion process.

But does this prove that those who oppose GMOs are anti-science? More to the point, are scientists who question the safety of GMOs anti-science even as they continue their scientific research?

We must be careful to distinguish research designed merely to understand the workings of the physical world from an endorsement of specific applications of our knowledge to products and practices. There is a big difference between science and applied science which we often call technology or engineering.

This is where the problem of what a friend of mine calls the Midgley Effect arises. Thomas Midgley Jr. was a renown American chemist in the first half of the 20th century. He was asked to find compounds that could be added to gasoline to reduce "knocking" in engines (which can cause damage). Midgley's solution was tetraethyllead which became the basis for leaded gasoline.

Midgley assured the public that leaded gasoline was safe. In fact, Midgley was given the prestigious William H. Nichols Medal by the American Chemical Society in 1923 for his breakthrough. Despite concerns about the release of lead into the environment and deaths at a pilot plant, the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service both concluded that there was no evidence that leaded gasoline would cause human health problems. Thus, yet another uncontrolled mass experiment began with humans as the subjects.

Only unrelated research on the age of the Earth revealed abnormally high levels of lead in the environment which interfered with such age calculations and led to concerns about leaded gasoline--which, of course, was eventually banned.

But Midgley's work on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as refrigerants was probably even more significant. At the time existing refrigerants--fluids that circulate in refrigerators and draw heat away from their interiors--were corrosive or flammable. The industry wanted something that wasn't either. Midgley's solution was a set of inert compounds that would easily vaporize and recondense called chlorofluorocarbons and that eventually went by the trade name Freon.

Nonflammable, noncorrosive, nontoxic to humans and able to circulate in refrigerators for years, even decades without breaking down, his discovery found wide application in refrigeration and eventually air conditioning. So safe were CFCs deemed that they were used in aerosol spray cans and even asthma inhalers.

For his work on CFCs Midgley received another award, the Perkin Medal from the Society of Chemical Industry in 1937.

If chemist F. Sherwood Rowland had not asked in the early 1970s where CFCs go once they are released, we might now be living without the better part of the Earth's ozone layer. His work alerted the world that CFCs were indeed quite long-lived as advertised, were making their way continuously to the Earth's ozone layer and were systematically destroying it. Without the ozone layer much greater ultraviolet radiation would hit the Earth and endanger all living things. CFCs were ultimately banned by the Montreal Protocol.

Shall we consider the scientist who discovered the deleterious effect of CFCs on the ozone layer anti-science? Shall we consider the geochemist who discovered the widespread dissemination of lead in the environment that was linked to leaded gasoline anti-science?

Of course not. Pointing out potential and actual dangers of a specific application of scientific research in not anti-science at all.

In these cases we must remember that lots of people who called themselves scientists assured us that leaded gasoline and CFCs were safe. But, they were wrong, grievously wrong. And, we must remember that it took decades to uncover the widespread damage being done by both.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) long ago ruled that GMO foods are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GMO counterparts and therefore do NOT require any testing. Those supporting the widespread dissemination of GMOs could be very wrong as well. There isn't enough information to know what the ultimate results will be for human and animal health.

What is more interesting is that the authors of the petition mentioned above have essentially admitted that we are doing an uncontrolled experiment on humans (because governments required no controlled studies). They write:

But the science telling us GM [genetically modified] crops and foods are safe has been confirmed by vast experience. Humans have eaten hundreds of billions of GM based meals in the past 20 years without a single case of any problems resulting from GM.

The petition writers, of course, do not adduce any evidence that there has not been a single case of a problem with genetically engineered foods. They merely assert it. I would hazard a guess that they did not do an exhaustive survey to find any cases.

This leads us to the second claim that is supposed to prove that somebody is anti-science if he or she opposes GMOs.

2. There is no evidence that GMOs are harmful to humans, animals or the environment.

Anecdotal evidence and even some scientific studies suggest that GMOs may be harmful in one or more these three categories. Even if that evidence is valid, it begs the question, How harmful? Do the supposed benefits of GMOs outweigh any alleged or actual harm?

The problem with engaging assertion number 2 above is that it is an inversion of responsibility. The GMO industry and its supporters assume that it is the responsibility of the public to discover any harm and to document it sufficiently to prove that harm.

But the real responsibility ought to lie with the industry. Typically, the way this is done is that the government requires studies under controlled conditions to establish the safety of a product. Individual consumers and independent researchers don't have the financial and technical resources to do this.

If the industry wants to warrant that GMOs are safe for human consumption, it should have to follow protocols designed for novel products which it wants to introduce into the human body. These protocols are generally reserved for new drugs. But some scientists in the FDA suggested that just such protocols would be necessary to assure that GMOs are safe before their release to the public. (They were overruled.)

The industry assures us that GMOs are not novel. After all, the FDA ruled that GMOs are "substantially equivalent." On that basis all patents for GMOs crops would be invalid since they are not novel. But it is precisely based on the novelty of specific genetic alterations of plants that the GMO companies have successfully obtained patents on their products.

If GMO plants are indeed novel as the companies insist when they go to the patent office, then they ought to be obliged to prove they are safe under established protocols for novel products designed for human consumption.

Don't let the industry get away with this inversion of responsibility. Can the industry really make the claim that those who oppose GMOs because the foods derived form them are not properly tested are anti-science? Isn't the industry really anti-science for opposing the testing of novel foods in the same way the drug companies are obliged to test novel compounds? Isn't the industry being anti-science by claiming that GMOs are not novel? (Maybe that's just straight out lying.)

There is a third claim that is supposed to demonstrate that those who oppose GMOs are both anti-science and ignorant.

3. GMO crops are no more risky than crops created through hybridization or crossbreeding.

This is a clever argument indeed. For it tries to get the listener to accept the equivalence of the two types of genetic alteration. But they are not equivalent. And, the key reason is not the one cited most often by GMO critics, namely transgene splicing, the splicing of genes from completely different categories (from a fish to a tomato to cite a real example). While it's theoretically possible for such gene transfers to take place in nature, they are highly unlikely. (How often is a fish in the wild going to come into contact with a tomato?)

What is more important is that humans have ample experience with crossbreeding. The fact that humans are still here in the numbers that they are testifies to the safety of crossbreeding which has been practiced for a very long time. This does not testify to safety in every instance, but to safety in general. Historically, crossbred plants are tested in small areas to see whether thrive and to see how they interact with other plants. These small experiments keep any mistakes contained.

GMO crops on the other hand are poorly tested* and then introduced practically worldwide within a few years. If there is a hidden adverse interaction with the environment, we will be subject to worldwide effects before we are aware. Those effects might take years to become apparent. And, it might take us years to trace those effects to GMO crops. The adverse environmental effects of GMOs will not be contained. There will be no small mistakes.

Since our experience with GMOs is limited, there has been very little time to discover unintended consequences. The fact that GMO crops to date have not produced catastrophic systemic failures in farm fields or in the surrounding environment does not prove that the next new GMO crop won't produce such a failure or that existing GMO crops under some as yet unencountered situation won't produce such failures.

Now, here's the key point: Because we cannot from experience judge the risks of GMOs to the broader environment (as we can with crossbreeding), and we cannot anticipate all the interactions between GMOs and the environment, THERE IS A NONZERO RISK OF SYSTEMIC CATASTROPHE, namely, worldwide crop failure or systemic ruination of adjacent ecosystems.

The proponents will say that the risk of such systemic effects is small. But it does not matter how small that risk is if we intend to keep subjecting the environment to novel crop genes. If the risk is nonzero and we metaphorically pull the gene gun trigger enough times, we will eventually create systemic ruin.

We are playing a game of Russian roulette with the many genetic engineering techniques we are now employing. Techniques which have a nonzero risk of creating systemic ruin should be banned. Ruin is too great a price to pay no matter how big the perceived benefits are (and the supposed benefits of GMOs are hotly disputed).

The foregoing discussion is really a reiteration of something I've covered before based on the work of risk expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb explains why the precautionary principle should apply to GMOs.

Perhaps risk is not the purview of the pure scientist. But it certainly must be the purview of the applied scientist. To misunderstand risk in the worldwide dissemination of genetically novel crops is to set oneself up to be the next Thomas Midgley and to risk the lives and livelihoods of millions, even billions of people based on a mere feeling that what one is doing is low risk.

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*The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires field testing of GMO plants to determine whether they have the potential to harm other plants. The genetic contamination of non-GMO plants (through the exchange of pollen) which is prevalent worldwide seems of little concern to the USDA which seems not to regard this as a harm to other plants. This is particularly a problem for organic growers who are forbidden to use GMO crops and those conventional growers seeking non-GMO verification of their crops. The FDA regulates as a pesticide any GMO plant which produces its own pesticide (as many of them do) and determines whether ingesting that pesticide in the amounts in the plant poses a hazard to human health--not particularly appetizing. A summary of these regulations can be found on p. 4 of this document.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

M. King Hubbert and the future of peak oil

Almost synonymous with the term "peak oil" is M. King Hubbert, perhaps the foremost geophysicist of the 20th century, who first theorized about the eventual decline of oil production in the 1930s. Hubbert and his work have once again come into the public eye as a result of the 2008 oil price spike and the highest ever daily average prices for oil from 2011 through 2014. His life has now been chronicled by science writer Mason Inman in a new biography entitled The Oracle of Oil.

Depending upon whom you speak with, peak oil is either a catastrophe waiting to happen or a far-off concern that has already been solved or will be soon. Frequently, peak oil is referred to as a myth. What you rarely hear is that peak oil is an empirical fact having already occurred in more than two dozen oil-producing countries. Making the list are names that will surprise many including Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, three of the world's top oil exporters.

The term "peak oil" simply means that crude oil production for any field, region or country eventually reaches a peak or plateau from which it inexorably declines. Because the amount of oil in the Earth's crust is finite, it is logical to assume that one day peak oil production will occur worldwide. The concern is that we as a global society are so accustomed to rising oil production that we have built an entire world around that assumption. Will we be ready when oil production begins to decline?

To shed some light on that and other questions author Inman takes us from Hubbert's early days at the University of Chicago to his famous speech in 1956 (in which he predicted a peak in U.S. crude oil production no later than 1970) to his days in Washington, D.C. working for the U.S. Geological Survey and his fights there concerning the timing of a U.S. oil production peak.

In the course of the story Inman puts to rest misconceptions about Hubbert and about peak oil. First and foremost, peak does NOT mean running out. As explained above it means the trend of rising oil production reverses into a decline. When this reversal occurs worldwide, it could pose challenges for a society that has yet to find a cheap, widely available substitute for petroleum to fuel its transportation system. Electric vehicles are still in their infancy and would require huge infrastructure investments. And, petrochemicals made from oil are the basis for a wide variety of clothing, medicines, lubricants, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. Oil is embedded practically everywhere in our lives, and finding substitutes won't be easy in many cases.

Second, forecasting peak oil is NOT tantamount to forecasting disaster. Hubbert himself believed that society could make a successful transition away from petroleum and other fossil fuels to a nuclear- and solar-powered world so long as we started early enough. Far from being a pessimist, Inman tells us, Hubbert was a utopian who believed an efficiently run technocratic society with plenty for all was possible if only we would take the necessary steps.

In fact, Hubbert foresaw some technological advances we now take for granted, for example, that postal mail would be largely replaced by "signals sent by wire" which we, of course, call email. He believed that energy efficiency in the form of thick insulation for homes would become increasingly common. We now see that development in weatherization programs for homeowners and the spread of Passive House technology which reduces heating and cooling needs by 80 to 90 percent.

Third, Hubbert was NOT anti-oil. In fact, he worked for Shell Oil Company for 20 years in production research. Hubbert understood deeply the benefits of oil to human society, and he wanted those benefits to continue. But he believed they would not continue unless new sources of energy were deployed before fossil fuel production began its inevitable decline.

Fourth, contrary to what his critics say, Hubbert did take technological improvements into account when calculating his forecasts for peak. He was aware of unconventional sources of oil such as tar sands, oil shale, and coal-to-liquids technology. But he realized that these sources would be challenging and expensive to exploit.

It turns out he was right. Operators in the Canadian tar sands today are having a difficult time simply maintaining production in the current low-price environment for oil. As for oil shale, despite more than 30 years of research and development including pilot plants, there is no commercial production of oil from oil shale in the United States (which has by far the largest deposits) and very limited production in Estonia (where oil shale is mostly burned directly to produce electricity). It's not clear that standalone facilities that would produce only oil from oil shale would be economical given the American experience.

Coal-to-liquids technology continues to be too expensive to deploy worldwide though it does have a foothold in South Africa. South Africa built these expensive and environmentally dirty facilities during the apartheid period when the country's leaders feared an embargo might curtail oil shipments to South Africa.

There is, of course, the question of just how oracular the "oracle of oil" was. As it turns out, Hubbert's prediction of a peak in U.S. production (which at that time covered the lower 48 states) was right on the money. U.S. crude oil production fell starting in 1970 and continued to fall (with a short respite when Alaskan oil began to flow) until 2008. Then, the advent of a new kind of hydraulic fracturing or fracking (as it is popularly called) made possible the extraction of previously difficult-to-get oil from deep shale deposits (not to be confused with oil shale mentioned above).

U.S. production last year came close to eclipsing the 1970 number, but has fallen back as low prices have forced deep reductions in drilling. Meanwhile, non-shale production continues to fall. A rise in oil prices would certainly revive drilling in American shale deposits. But it is doubtful that this will happen before shrinking conventional production makes it all but impossible to achieve a new all-time high in U.S. production.

As for world production, he did his original calculations before the high prices and oil crises of the 1970s led to an energy efficiency drive worldwide and resulted in the first ever sustained decline in world oil consumption, something that would clearly delay a peak. After the first of those oil crises, in the mid-1970s Hubbert calculated that a worldwide peak might come as soon as the 1990s or as late as the 2030s (but only if consumption remained level from the 1970s onward).

He views were largely adopted in a U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast in the late 1970s. The agency forecast a probable peak about 2010, but offered a range of 1995 to 2035 depending on energy policies and consumption patterns.

As it turned out, conventional oil, the kind that Hubbert used in his models, the kind that flows as a liquid from the ground--which I call "Beverly Hillbillies oil" after the "bubbling crude" seen in the introduction to the now long-defunct television series--this kind of oil peaked in 2006 according to the International Energy Agency, a consortium of 29 countries which provides ongoing research and information about energy supplies worldwide.

Despite all protestations to the contrary, Hubbert proved prescient once again even if he didn't get the exact timing right. That world oil production continues to eke out small gains is due entirely to production from unconventional sources not included in Hubbert's models. But those sources have shown themselves to be exquisitely sensitive to price.

In the two countries best known for unconventional oil, the United States and Canada, production from U.S. deep shale deposits and Canadian tar sands is now shrinking. Alarmingly, without recent growth in oil production in these two countries, worldwide oil production would have declined from 2005 to today. Now that the twin engines of growth, the United States and Canada, are in decline, we may see a fall in worldwide production soon (though whether this will mark the ultimate peak will not be known until many years thereafter).

But, any peak will inevitably result from a mix of economic and geologic factors. So, the new question about oil is, "Can we afford to extract and refine the oil we have left?" Or, more precisely, "Will the cost of extracting these unconventional sources cause economic growth to slow or stagnate?"

This is just the sort of scenario Hubbert foresaw if we waited too long to address the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels. And, there is reason to believe that low oil prices today reflect an economy slowed by previously high oil prices. These high prices themselves are an indication that we are now facing ever more difficulty and effort in extracting the remaining marginal sources of oil. And, the fact that so many oil companies are now going bankrupt due to low prices tells us that high prices will have to return if we want to extract this difficult-to-get oil in great quantities again.

Hubbert died in 1989, living to see the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Long concerned about nuclear waste and impatient for a transition, Hubbert decided that global society needed to undertake the rapid deployment of an indisputably clean source of energy, solar power. We would use solar power not only for electricity, but also to make the liquid fuels needed for our transportation system which we could adapt to run on methanol or hydrogen.

Perhaps what irked Hubbert's critics the most was his lifelong skepticism about exponential economic and population growth. So firmly did he believe that population growth needed to be curtailed that he and his wife had no children. There were limits, he believed, and if they were breached, humans would pay dearly.

Hubbert is much maligned and much praised these days. But he is perhaps not well understood. Mason Inman's compelling biography gives us all, critics and supporters alike, a chance finally to understand this scientific giant and the context within which he spawned insights that continue to be central to our lives.

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UPDATED July 19, 2016

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

GMO industry: The dumbest guys in the room

I am now convinced the GMO industry has managed to hire the worst public relations strategists in human history. By supporting a deeply flawed GMO labeling bill in the U.S. Congress--some would say intentionally deeply flawed--the industry is about to open a Pandora's Box of PR nightmares for years to come.

First, a little background. GMO, of course, means genetically modified organism which more properly refers to genetically engineered crops and animals. GMO industry leader Monsanto and its competitors such as Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical and Sygenta have all been fighting a fierce battle in the United States against labeling foodstuffs derived from genetically engineered crops. After defeating statewide labeling referendums in California, Oregon and Washington, they failed to stop the implementation of Vermont's GMO labeling law which went into effect July 1.

In desperation the companies have been trying to get the U.S. Congress to pass a nationwide labeling law--one that is considerably less stringent and also riddled with loopholes--that would pre-empt Vermont's law. Just last week the Senate approved its version of the labeling law. If the House and Senate can work out their differences, we may see such a law signed by President Obama before too long.

The industry's main complaint has been that labeling GMOs would unfairly stigmatize them in the minds of consumers. Some 64 countries already require such labeling. What concerns the industry is that increased consumer awareness could create a movement that would lead to a ban on the cultivation of GMO crops, a ban already implemented by 19 countries in Europe.

Opponents of the GMO labeling law currently moving through the U.S. Congress believe it is so poorly drafted that almost no commonly consumed genetically modified foods will actually be covered. In addition, food derived from newer gene-editing techniques as opposed to transgene processes--the ones that transfer genes from one species to another--may be excluded as well. The fact that agricultural trade groups are praising the labeling bill--after fighting labeling for years--tells you something about how effective they believe the law will be at informing consumers, namely, not very.

The Senate bill allows food manufacturers to use a symbol, a statement or a so-called QR code that shoppers would have to scan using a cellphone to obtain information on genetically engineered ingredients. Small companies could simply list a phone number or website address.

If you were selling GMO-derived foods, which would you use? Probably the options that provide the least information and which make it most difficult for consumers to access that information. This assumes that anything in your product actually turns out to be covered by the law which looks like it will exclude great swaths of foodstuffs containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Given what we know now, the final bill is likely to be vague and riddled with exceptions and confusing directives. The GMO-friendly U.S. Department of Agriculture will then be tasked with writing the actual labeling regulations.

We are thus assured of months and perhaps years of wrangling over the labeling rules, every step of which will be given wide and probably negative coverage by the anti-GMO activist community. The pending federal labeling law is more likely to assist opponents in sowing mistrust of major food companies than alleviate it. When the rules go into effect, if they are every bit as lax as the law seems to promise, the activists will make a sport out of spotting and telling on companies that are cheating or that are cleverly thwarting the purposes of the law.

The anti-GMO groups will likely put out lists of the worst labeling violators and lists of their products containing GMOs. And, of course, there will be lists based on those enigmatic QR codes. Perhaps those codes will become the equivalent of the skull and crossbones feared by one GMO executive.

The whole shopping experience will be treated like an reverse Easter egg hunt. Can you spot the GMO foods? Can you identify the alleged cheaters on the grocery store shelves and punish them by refusing to buy their products?

Perhaps some enterprising activist, one not afraid of incarceration, will surreptitiously slap GMO cheater labels on various products on the store shelves that are not labeled properly. Any subsequent arrest will then lead to more coverage as some in the public cheer the civil disobedience while others simply shrug their shoulders.

Acquiescence to the Vermont law or acceptance of a federal law with Vermont's straightforward labeling rules would have saved the GMO industry from what will almost surely be a years-long PR debacle if the labeling law before Congress passes.

There will doubtless be many more creative ways than I've listed for GMO opponents to tweak the industry and keep the issue of honest labeling alive and before the public. If only the industry had accepted Vermont's labeling law as the de facto standard for the country, the industry would have in one stroke taken the issue away from its opponents!

But the industry's business and public relations strategists are the same ones who made a colossal marketing error--while believing they had achieved a regulatory coup--when they steamrolled the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into ruling that GMOs are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GMO counterparts and therefore require no testing. The FDA did this despite their own scientists' concerns that these novel life forms might have unanticipated effects on the environment and on humans who consume them. Some of those scientists thought extensive testing similar to what a new drug must go through was advisable to rule out such risks.

The reason this strategy has turned out to be a colossal marketing error is that as the attacks on GMOs have mounted during the intervening couple of decades, the industry finds itself unable to pivot and point to any advantages that GMO foods have for consumers over non-GMO foods. This is because the industry has been saying for more than 20 years that GMOs have no advantages for consumers. After all, GMO foods are said to be "substantially equivalent." That means that the industry cannot give consumers any reasons to prefer GMO foods over their non-GMO counterparts. Any claims of superiority over conventional foods made now will ring hollow and bring down an avalanche of public derision from GMO opponents.

(The industry may cite supposed advantages for farmers and for the environment. But those advantages are sharply and publicly disputed by anti-GMO activists and have nothing to do with taste, nutrition or appearance which are what matters to consumers. While the GMO industry tells us that GMO crops with enhanced nutrition are coming, I can find only one that has been brought to market under a cloud of concerns. So far genetic engineering has focused on creating plants the produce insecticides internally--not a pleasant thought for those eating them--and which are immune to herbicides made by, you guessed it, the companies producing the GMO seeds.)

These same industry strategists have directed a campaign of fear aimed at farmers to prevent supposed intellectual property theft through the use of saved GMO seeds. Even those into whose fields GMO seeds have been swept by wind have been sued. Since farmers growing in areas where other farmers grow genetically engineered crops may be subject to windblown "thefts," they have an incentive to grow GMO crops on their land and pay the royalties to avoid being sued for such "theft." Essentially, it's, "Buy from us or we'll sue you--and we're a lot richer than you are."

Aggressive tactics including smear campaigns have also been used against critics who question the safety and social utility of GMOs and associated farm chemicals. (Click here, here and here.) Mostly, those campaigns have backfired by creating extensive media coverage of the smear campaigns themselves.

These aggressive tactics have made the company most associated with the GMO industry, Monsanto, one of the most hated corporations in America.

All of this would make for an enviable record for anti-GMO activists, and yet it comes from business and public relations strategists in the industry itself. In most industries, a record like this would lead to a rash of sackings.

Instead, the bunglers have managed to bungle into yet another long-term public relations disaster of their own making. They seem not to have learned anything from their repeated failures.

All this should be pleasing to GMO opponents who must be thinking these continuing debacles couldn't be happening to nicer people.

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P.S. I borrow my slightly altered headline for this piece from a book and film entitled "The Smartest Guys in the Room" about the collapse of Enron, the energy trading firm. The phrase refers to key traders in the company who believed they were, in fact, always the smartest guys in the room, the same ones who eventually brought the company down.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Taking a holiday break--no post this week

I am taking a break for the Independence Day holiday weekend. I expect to post again on Sunday, July 10.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit and the energy equation

The fretting in the financial markets after Great Britain's voters narrowly decided to leave the European Union (EU), a move dubbed Brexit, was less about immediate effects--there aren't any since it would take Britain up to two years to withdraw--and more about a foreboding that other countries will want out, too.

In addition, some think it likely that Scottish independence will once again be on the agenda. Scots were heavily in favor of remaining in the EU.

Centrifugal political forces are bad for business since they spell uncertainty and ultimately disruption if they come to fruition as they did in Britain regarding the EU. And, Britain, of course, isn't the only country in Europe facing breakaway movements. The people of Spain's Catalonia region have for some time sought a referendum on independence from Spain. Only last year Catalan separatists won a majority in the regional government. The movement cites cultural and linguistic reasons for independent statehood, reasons that could be asserted by many groups across Europe and lead to more instability.

The larger question is why there is building discontent with global economic and political integration not only in Europe, but also in the United States as evidenced by the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The slim defeat for pro-EU forces has been explained as a vote against EU immigration and business regulation policies and against the loss of national sovereignty. But there is also a feeling afoot that the move toward greater integration through the EU and through global and regional trade agreements is designed primarily to enrich global financial elites--all the while subjecting middle- and lower-class wage earners to stagnant and even falling incomes as they compete against cheap labor in developing countries.

In the conversation about the rising revulsion against further integration, one factor is not being discussed: energy. With oil, natural gas and coal, the world's primary energy sources, all far below their high prices of the last decade, all would seem well on the energy front.

Britain, of course, had been reaping the benefits of oil and natural gas deposits in its sector of the North Sea since the 1970s. However, after 2005 the country ceased to be a net exporter of crude oil and natural gas liquids. Imports of natural gas have risen steeply with 2014 imports reaching 19 times what they were in 2000. Both these trends point to the decline of the North Sea fields and Britain's re-entry into the league of oil and gas importers, a sudden reversal of a previous long-term trend and a net negative for the British economy.

As you'll see below, this trend combined with the effects of high energy prices on productivity growth had a negative effect on the incomes of middle- and lower-class voters who simultaneously paid a higher proportion of their incomes for increased energy bills. This double whammy has likely contributed to discontent among such voters who were looking for a way to express their frustration and found it in the Brexit vote.

Returning to the trends mentioned above, the year 2005 turned out not only to be an inflection point for the North Sea fields, but also for the worldwide oil markets. Prices rose inexorably and spiked in 2008 to their highest ever. After prices dipped to around $35 per barrel in the wake of the financial crash that followed, they rose sharply again regaining $100 by early 2011 and hovered around record average daily prices for more than three and a half years. The high prices were related to rising demand from Asia, but also to a dramatic slowdown in the growth of oil production worldwide.

If the cause of our current economic difficulties was, in part, high oil prices which slowed the world economy, then an energy connection comes into view. Current low oil prices become a symptom of economic weakness rather than merely a reflection of excess supply. (Much of the world outside of North America also experienced high natural gas prices during this period in the form of high landed costs for liquefied natural gas in Japan and Europe, far higher than the U.S. pipeline price during this period.)

Moreover, high energy prices in general can be linked to slower productivity growth. And, we have seen global productivity growth far below the expected trend since 2005, a year that was as noted an inflection point for oil prices. Now, here's the important part: Productivity growth is the basis for rising wages. With declining productivity growth employers are less likely to raise wages as those raises would eat into profitability.

There are other reasons why wage earners may not be receiving wage increases, but lack of productivity growth is an important one.

So, here's what all this had to do with the Brexit vote: Stagnant or declining living standards breed discontent among a populace used to rising standards. Pro free trade and economic integration forces argue that such integration into larger trading federations leads to greater prosperity. When the prosperity disappeared as it did in Ireland, Spain and Greece, significant political movements arose in the latter two (Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece) which question further integration and suggest at least substantial alteration of the terms of EU membership. The effect on British wage earners was more subtle, but found its expression in the Brexit vote.

Likewise, real American median wages have been generally slumping since 2007. The long-awaited recovery in wage growth has yet to appear in the United States even as a boom in oil and natural gas related to extraction from shale deposits boosted incomes in states where the boom occurred.

As in Europe, American voters have been looking for the reason for their declining prospects, and two candidates for president this year suggested a reason that makes sense to those voters: Global trade agreements have depressed American wages. Donald Trump said he would "renegotiate" the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Bernie Sanders outright opposed NAFTA in 1993 while a congressman and continues to oppose agreements he believes punish domestic labor.

While supposedly unfair trade and financial agreements may be a cause for the decline of middle- and lower-class fortunes, they cannot be the sole cause. That's because wage stagnation began long before NAFTA and long before the introduction of the Euro.

It's instructive to note that in the United States median hourly wages leveled off in 1973, the year of the Arab Oil Embargo. Energy costs in the United States rose dramatically after that though they returned to lower levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, the country was increasingly dependent on foreign oil and sent more and more of its income abroad during this period to pay for that oil. During the recently expired oil and natural gas boom in the United States, high prices enriched those involved while transferring wealth from those who weren't. The effect on overall wages seems to have been slightly negative.

None of this definitively proves that stagnant wages are caused by high energy prices, increasing energy imports or skewed trade agreements. But there is strong evidence that all three are implicated. Not surprisingly, energy is the theme that is being neglected in this discussion because energy is currently in a cyclical price trough, one that may very well have resulted from the dampening effect previously high prices had on economic and productivity growth.

Such effects are hard to pin down. And, the mythology brought to us by the public relations arm of the fossil fuel industry is that we need not worry about sufficient energy supply--a story they've been touting since the lows in oil prices in 1998. Every step of the way on the path to the price spike of 2008, the industry said big new supplies were just around the corner.

When a special kind of hydraulic fracturing made new oil deposits available in the United States, only prices near $100 a barrel made them economical (as we can see by the widespread bankruptcies among those companies reliant on such deposits in the recent low-price environment).

It's those high prices which I believe have slowed the economy making oil now seem temporarily plentiful. If we don't go into a major recession or depression, a rise in demand could send prices soaring and put further pressure on overall productivity growth while increasing energy bills for households. That would set the stage for more discontent among those who believe that increased economic global integration is hurting rather than helping them.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Disconnect: Congressional hawks hate sustainability, but love military that seeks it

Recently, I toured a U.S Navy mine sweeper and destroyer during Fleet Week. Just before the tour entrance line a tent with exhibits caught my attention. On the first table were a set of small bottles containing various kinds of liquid fuels, a sampling meant to highlight the biofuels now being developed and used by the Navy. At the second table I was greeted by a Navy public relations specialist who handed me a quarterly magazine devoted exclusively to the Navy's energy and environmental initiatives.

The U.S. Navy isn't the only service seeking to make itself less dependent on fossil fuels and friendlier to the environment. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has committed itself to more sustainable practices and alternative fuels across all services. The reason: The DOD takes climate change and fossil fuel dependence as serious risks to the nation's security and to the U.S. military's own ability to fight and protect the nation.

Why does the U.S. military establishment take these threats seriously and act on them in such a thoroughgoing fashion while the military's strongest congressional supporters are the most ardent opponents of sustainable practices?

Using the hawkish Center for Security Policy's (CSP) 2013-2014 congressional scorecard as a proxy for devotion to all things military, we find 21 so-called "champions" of national security in the U.S. House and Senate who voted for all items favored by the CSP during the session. Among those 21 legislators, nine had a 0 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for 2014, four had a 3 percent rating, four had a 6 percent rating, one had 20 percent rating, one had a 60 percent rating, and two were not rated.

This is not a perfect indicator by any means, but it provides a general outline of the disconnect between a military establishment which has embraced sustainability and its most ardent legislative supporters who refuse to recognize and act on those same imperatives for sustainability in the civilian economy.

Certainly, part of the explanation is that the budget of the U.S. military is very large, and many constituencies which benefit from it in both political parties need to be satisfied before it can pass. But another part of the explanation is the way the military assesses risk versus the way we assess risk in the civilian economy.

For military commanders every decision has life-and-death implications. Poor planning for any part of military operations--food, clothing, shelter, fuel, weapons, ammunition, intelligence, transport, coordination with other armed services, and so on--can hinder success and cost lives. Contingencies, however remote, are often considered since they can mean substantial loss of life if ignored. Essentially, mission planners are asking, "What if?"

Climate change models suggest widespread disruption of agriculture, water supplies and coastal settlements (due to sea level rise) resulting in growing instability around the world and leading to increased military threats. A 2015 DOD report to Congress on climate-related risk summarizes the department's thinking.

The DOD also understands that renewable energy gathered on military bases is less vulnerable to disruption from hostile actions, actions that could prevent imported fuel from reaching those bases and which could also compromise civilian electrical grids. The department has therefore adopted aggressive goals for renewable energy with the Navy setting a 50 percent goal by 2020.

Why is the DOD moving so fast? Because it perceives that risks related to fuel supplies and climate change are real and immediate. The department believes these risks must be addressed now to maintain readiness not only for violent attacks from hostile forces, but also for sustainability in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions.

Why are we not applying the same analysis to the U.S. civilian economy? Certainly, there are many people who do, but they have not been able to convince enough federal legislators to move more quickly on an energy transition that would both lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.

But the most important difference is that in civilian society we have to set policy by consent, by legislative action. In the military, policy can be set by top commanders and enforced, policy that often puts security above cost and that fossil fuel lobbyists are generally impotent to alter.

Moreover, civilian society operates under a market system in which priorities for investment are affected by millions upon millions of buying and investment decisions made by individuals and companies. And, those individuals and companies have a say in public policy, a say that tends to value stability over change.

For example, utilities are being forced to adopt renewable energy targets by state utility commissions around the country. But, it would be difficult to force those utilities to shut down, say, half their fossil fuel plants by 2020 without bankrupting them and endangering the stability of the electrical grid to boot. Existing infrastructure is not so easily disposed of because its owners want to get maximum value out of it before disposing of it and because its integration with larger systems (such as the electrical grid) must be carefully taken into account.

Still, the threat of climate change to food and water supplies, to the stability of existing infrastructure including coastal settlements, and to the health of human populations (more very hot days and more tropical diseases) suggest that adapting to and mitigating climate change ought to be as much a priority in U.S. civilian society as it is in the U.S. military. And, we now have compelling demonstrations from the military that a rapid transition can take place.

All we have to do is to find the will to make that transition. The military recognizes that its effectiveness at its mission is at stake. If only we civilians everywhere could embrace alternative energy and climate-change adaptation and mitigation with the same zeal, maybe the very conflicts which the U.S. military anticipates as an outcome of climate change and resource pressures could be considerably lessened or eliminated.

And then, just maybe the sailors I met during Fleet Week wouldn't have to fight in conflicts related to those twin risks because we civilians would be taking climate change and energy resource pressures as seriously as they do and doing what is necessary to address them.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Can the world go all-electric?

Recently, word leaked out that Norway may ban the sale of diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles by 2025. The move toward electric vehicles is part of a dream shared by those concerned about climate change and about fossil fuel depletion (especially oil depletion), namely, to turn the world into one big all-electric paradise by running everything we can on electricity.

Theoretically, this is possible, but getting there won't be easy. First, such a transition will take time. In the Norwegian example cited above, the transition to an all-electric private car fleet would take about 15 years based on Norwegian new private car registrations in 2015 and the current total number of registered private cars.

But the ban wouldn't take effect until 2025. While Norwegian electric car registrations are rising, so are total car registrations. Even if we generously assume that the rise in electric car registrations between now and 2025 will shave five years off the transition, that still means Norway won't achieve an all-electric private automobile fleet until 2035. And, Norway is already a leader in the move toward all-electric transportation. Other countries lag far behind.

The Norwegian example points out a second difficulty in the transition to an all-electric world. Norway gets 95.9 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. It gets another 1.6 percent from wind turbines. Only 2.5 percent of its electricity comes from thermal power plants, the kind that burn fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas and that provide 66 percent of the world's electricity.

Transitioning to electric transportation in places that primarily burn coal, natural gas and/or diesel fuel to produce electricity would undermine the goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. In thermal power plants, the ones that burn fossil fuels, two-thirds of the energy produced is lost in the form of heat. Only one-third is turned into electricity.

Electric automobile manufacturers claiming that their cars get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon aren't factoring in the fossil fuel portion of the electricity used to power such cars. And, while electric automobiles reduce emissions to zero at the site where you use them, if they are powered exclusively by electricity generated from fossil fuels, the actual miles per gallon equivalent may drop to between 30 and 40. That would make such electric cars no more climate-friendly than high-mileage gasoline-powered cars and less climate-friendly than some hybrid-electric cars.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in a 2014 update of an earlier survey outlines the best regions in the United States for electric vehicles based on the fuel mix of utilities. Where nuclear and renewable power are highest, emissions are, of course, lowest. That's why electric transportation only really addresses climate change when it is powered primarily by electricity from nuclear and renewable energy.

Of course, transportation is not the only area that we could electrify. While most industrial processes are powered by electricity, many industries require process heat to melt metals, foster chemical reactions, and cook and bake foods. These industries usually burn fossil fuels for that heat, mostly natural gas. Using electric heat would be extremely inefficient and injurious to the climate in this case unless, of course, the electricity comes from nuclear and/or renewables.

Let's not forget that homes, stores and offices need heat in colder climates, most often supplied by heating oil and natural gas. The same tradeoffs exist for these users as for industrial firms needing heat for their various processes.

While renewable energy is growing rapidly, a full transition to a renewable energy economy is still decades away. Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggest continued heavy dependence on fossil fuel energy as late as 2040. That is a recipe for climate disaster if we are supposed to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by 80 percent by 2050 in order to maintain a livable planet.

In addition, the EIA projection for oil (lumped under "liquids" in the EIA's chart) may not be realistic given what we know about the cost of extracting much of the remaining oil from tar sands, the Arctic and the deep ocean. A considerable amount of oil touted as available to us in the future may simply not be cost-effective to extract.

So, we are faced with twin limits: the amount of carbon dioxide we can safely dispose of in the atmosphere and the amount of cheap oil left to extract.

The seemingly obvious solution is a very rapid transition to low-carbon or no-carbon energy in the form of renewables and nuclear power. The pace of the renewable energy build-out is impressive. But it is doubtful that such a build-out can proceed at a rate that will not only add to current electric generating capacity in order to meet new demand from transportation and growing demand from residential, commercial and industrial users, but also replace enough existing fossil-fueled plants in time for our rendezvous with 2050. Nuclear power is unlikely to expand much given public opposition due to safety concerns and given the decommissioning of older plants. Both renewable and nuclear power require some fossil fuel energy to build and service since 84 percent of the the world's energy currently comes from fossil fuels.

This brings us to a less risky, but nevertheless challenging strategy for addressing our twin crises. We could reduce dramatically the amount of energy we require. While we need to continue the renewable energy build-out and quicken its pace, we also need to meet that build-out halfway by reducing our energy use. The trouble with our current system is that if one group of people, say, the European Union, reduces its energy use overall, another group, say, fast-growing Asian nations, may be glad to buy the unused energy resources (mostly fossil fuels) now available at prices made lower by reduced EU demand.

This is called the Jevons Paradox in which increased energy efficiency actually creates more demand. To reach our goal of drastically cutting emissions and still have enough renewable energy to meet the needs of a modern technical society, we would actually need to put limits on fossil fuel energy use in order to short-circuit Jevons Paradox which could lead to increased rather than reduced burning of fossil fuels. As long as energy demand continues to grow and as long as we depend so heavily on fossil fuels for that energy, we run the risk of destroying our habitable climate, finding ourselves without the necessary energy to run our economies and/or paying a price for energy that our economies cannot bear without sinking into stagnation.

What this suggests is that economic growth itself might have to slow or even stop altogether. That could spell widespread economic and social problems in a society that has been designed only for continuous economic growth.

The methods for drastically cutting energy use are already available. We don't require new technology (though new technology will likely make energy use even more efficient). So-called passive house methods (which can and are being used for commercial and industrial buildings) can reduce heating and cooling needs by 80 to 90 percent. Widely available LED lighting offers deep reductions in energy use while providing that same level of light. Simply changing the way we do things can have a dramatic effect on energy use. Such nonprofits as the Rocky Mountain Institute have been showing government and industry how to reduce energy consumption dramatically by changing processes using existing technology.

Going all-electric or mostly electric has clear advantages. Electricity is an extremely flexible form of energy that can be applied to widely disparate tasks. Lighting rooms, heating water, and refrigerating food are typical household examples. A major argument for moving toward electricity derives from the simple fact that the most cost-effective form of renewable energy is electricity.

In order to make a climate-friendly transition that electrifies those areas of our economy that are not already powered by electricity, we would have to transition our electric generation simultaneously to renewable energy. Success would depend on government policies and an alert public willing to pay the costs of such a transition and willing to change the way it lives in order to accommodate that transition.

One example of a possible accommodation comes from the fact that renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar are intermittent. We get them only when the wind blows and the sun shines. For this reason, cheap electric energy storage has been considered a prerequisite before wind and solar could dominate electricity generation.

But one alternative would be to manage the intermittent nature of such sources by managing when we perform certain tasks. Those that are more critical might be scheduled during daylight hours when sun and possibly wind are both available. This is the kind of change that may very well be necessary as part of an electric transition, a transition that would require a revolution both in policy and in expectations concerning our daily life and work.

UPDATED June 14, 2016

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.