Sunday, August 28, 2016

Monsanto, temptation and some 'adolescent' farmers

"I can resist everything except temptation," one of playwright Oscar Wilde's characters tells us. But, the management of Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, must not be fans of the theater. As a result Monsanto has done the equivalent of giving a teenage boy the keys to the family car and then telling him that he can't drive it. We know what comes next.

The way this has manifested itself is widespread damage to soybeans, peaches and other crops from drifting herbicide. The problem has gotten so bad that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an advisory reminding farmers that the offending herbicide, dicamba, is not yet approved for spraying on dicamba-resistant soybeans and cotton (produced by Monsanto). That approval is under review, but only for a special dicamba formulation from Monsanto which supposedly reduces drift.

In the meantime, state agricultural officials in Arkansas have become so alarmed they've banned dicamba for use on row crops.

To understand how this happened, first we need some background. Monsanto is famous for its genetically engineered crops that resist its Roundup Ready brand herbicide. The herbicide can be sprayed on a resistant crop such as soybeans or cotton, and it kills unwanted weeds in the field while sparing the crop.

As weeds have evolved to resist glyphosate--the generic name for Roundup--Monsanto realized that it would have to engineer its crops to resist another herbicide or lose business.

Because new agricultural chemicals must be reviewed for approval through a lengthy and costly process, Monsanto decided to add resistance to the old, already approved herbicide dicamba which has been in use since the 1960s.

Dicamba is good at killing certain kinds of plants, the kind that farmers don't want in their fields. But it can also harm crops. Here is an explanation from the directions for using Banvel, a brand of dicamba:

BANVEL may cause injury to desirable trees and plants, particularly beans, cotton, flowers, fruit trees, grapes, ornamentals, peas, potatoes, soybeans, sunflowers, tobacco, tomatoes, and other broadleaf plants when contacting their roots, stems or foliage.

It's a pretty long list. The trouble is, dicamba can drift and affect crops on other farmers' property.

The next thing you need to know is that Monsanto began selling its dicamba-resistant soybean and cotton seeds last year. It told farmers that the special dicamba formulation which the company designed to minimize dicamba drift would, however, be unavailable since the EPA had yet to approve it. (Approval is still pending.)

Some farmers decided not to wait for that special formulation and have used other dicamba products illegally which are prone to drift and with predictable results. (The kid, the car get the analogy.) The mess has cast a cloud over the farming community and supporters of the latest generation of herbicide-resistant crops.

Keep in mind that it is practically impossible to prevent all drift from a pesticide applied to an outdoor field. And, even if Monsanto gets approval for its special dicamba formulation, that doesn't mean that all farmers will use it when cheaper formulations may be available. Moreover, because drift may be impossible to stop, farmers growing soybeans or cotton may be forced to buy Monsanto's dicamba-resistant seeds to protect themselves from damage. Farmers raising other crops that have no resistance may be faced with widespread damage to their fruits, vegetables and other crops.

On an analogous topic I wrote previously that Monsanto and other companies producing genetically engineered crops do not take genetic contamination of non-engineered crops very seriously. After all, if these companies can inflict enough contamination on other crops, they will be able to make it impossible to grow non-GMO (genetically modified organism) crops--which are becoming a threat to their market share. I would style this strategy as contaminate and conquer.

Likewise, if these same companies get their new herbicide-resistant crops and herbicide formulations approved, this could become yet another way to frighten farmers into their customer base and eliminate the competition.

And, yet I don't think this latest misstep will turn out quite the way the industry wants it to. As long as there continues to be significant drift, there will be significant damage. The stories we see today come from only a relatively small number of acres compared to the 15 million acres of Monsanto-produced dicamba-resistant soybeans for which the company hopes to sell seed in 2017. And, that acreage number doesn't include the dicamba-resistent cotton seeds the company hopes to market as well from which we can expect more drifting herbicide.

If there is enough damage, the whole dicamba project may have to be withdrawn as the courts sort out who is responsible for all the damage and how much they must pay. That might put the damper for some time on the idea that farmers can trust the judgment of GMO seed companies.

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, The Oil Drum,, 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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Limitless imagination and physical limits

Humans can imagine lots of things. They can imagine angels and demons. They can imagine whole worlds unlike ours with beings unlike us. They can convey these products of imagination in art, in literature and in film.

They can imagine flying machines, armored cars, diving suits, machine guns and human-like robots. Leonardo da Vinci imagined all of them hundreds of years before they became everyday reality. Hero of Alexandria, a Roman citizen and engineer, described a steam engine 1700 years before Thomas Savery obtained the first patent for one.

It didn't occur to the ancient Romans to refine the idea of the steam engine for transport or industrial work. They lacked the imagination for such a move and perhaps the necessity. After all, they had built a thriving empire without the steam engine, and the Mediterranean already offered quick, wind-powered transport to practically any part of the empire.

How do we distinguish those ideas that are forever going to remain in the realm of fiction and those that can become concrete reality? Of those that are possible how do we determine which won't destroy us? Both questions are very difficult ones indeed.

We are "moderns". We believe we have thrown off the burden of superstition and can now see in the clear light of day all the rational possibilities in the world that were previously hidden from our understanding. In this era of enlightenment the rush of invention and the power it has given us have resulted in the conceit that there is no limit to the power we can ultimately have.

That has given rise to an entire genre of fiction we call science fiction. Much of it concerns itself with space travel, particularly encounters with faraway alien civilizations. And, there is some reason to believe, just based on the immense size of the universe, that such civilizations exist even though we have never heard from them.

The science fiction genre and the enormous technological flowering of our age has encouraged the notion that anything we can imagine, we can achieve or invent. With regard to invention, the trouble with imagination as prediction is that if our imagination were vivid enough to detail the workings of a futuristic invention, those details would be tantamount to having created the invention itself.

All too often, we have objects with mere capabilities, but with no specifications. We have energy-matter transporters, but no specifications and no reason to believe based on the laws of physics that there could be any. We have ships that travel faster than the speed of light. There are theories about how to achieve such speeds. But, the amount of energy required is so enormous--by one calculation the energy contained in all the matter of the planet Jupiter to propel a 1,000 cubic meter ship--that it is hard to imagine how such an energy burst, if achieved, would not destroy the object it was trying to propel.

And, here we get to the crux of the matter. The above illustration is probably the most extreme one we could conjure of what actually constitutes technical prowess. Technology requires energy to run. What we've essentially been doing so far is substituting fossil fuel energy for human labor to run the technology that makes us feel so powerful. This has allowed productivity per person to skyrocket in the industrial age, but at a cost. That cost is the rapid depletion of fossil fuels and the climate effects of burning them.

Technology has given us the illusion of increasing "efficiency" in labor, when, in fact, this "efficiency" has been achieved through the wildly inefficient use of energy from the burning of fossil fuels. That inefficiency is the reason we are burning through so much fossil fuel so fast and creating climate change and depletion problems. (I am indebted to Nate Hagens for this insight.)

So, here I would like to propose a check on every "miracle" technology we are expecting in the future to do everything from making work optional (robots) to solving the climate problem (scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide). If the proponent of any yet-to-be-invented or yet-to-be-widely-deployed technology cannot explain where he or she will get all the energy needed to run it at scale in ways that 1) won't destroy the climate and 2) are in accordance with the known laws of physics, you should be very skeptical that it will ever be widely used.

A society that is ruined by climate change will cease to be technologically adept. So far, the best information we have about how to avoid a climate catastrophe is summed up in two principles: 1) Stop emitting greenhouse gases and 2) stop destroying things such as forests which absorb them.

Many of the technofixes which I've seen such as scrubbing the atmosphere of excess carbon involve enormous energy use. I know that the fantasists will protest that we will do all the things we want to do with "clean" energy. They must believe we have a lot longer for such an energy transition than we actually do. And, they likely don't understand the vast differences in energy density between fossil fuels and renewable energy. So far, "clean" renewable energy is only adding to our capacity rather than replacing our existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

The human imagination is an amazing thing. Its expression in literature, music and art can delight us and also be a mirror for our deepest selves. But it can lead us as well to mistake all our internal yearnings--for love, power and excitement--for external possibilities that have technological solutions which may not be possible or which may have serious downsides.

I am not trying to stop innovation. I am only trying to distinguish helpful innovation that betters our chances of survival and increases our overall quality of life from that which only sends us further down the road of climate instability and resource depletion and thus puts our very survival as a species at stake.

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, The Oil Drum,, 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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cheniere's first LNG export cargoes: A contrarian indicator for U.S. natural gas prices?

Cheniere Energy has long been my favorite contrarian indicator in the U.S. natural gas market. For those unfamiliar with the term, a contrarian indicator is an event which suggests that a broadly and firmly held view--in this case, the view that U.S. natural gas supplies will grow and remain cheap for decades--is about to begin a reversal.

As the company shipped its first cargo of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) for export earlier this year, the glut of cheap U.S. natural gas seemed to vindicate Cheniere's plans. I, on the other hand, imagined that the shipment was not confirmation of Cheniere's assumptions, but a contrarian signal that natural gas production was about to dip and that prices were finally going to turn higher in a sustained way.

I say this based on the timing of Cheniere's last scheme, a U.S. natural gas import terminal that now sits unused next to its newly built LNG export terminal in Louisiana. The import terminal received its first LNG shipment in April 2008 just two months before U.S. natural gas prices peaked around $13 per thousand cubic feet, collapsing to a low of $2.06 by September 2009. For comparison, last week U.S. natural gas futures for September delivery closed at $2.59.

Cheniere's stock price went from above $40 in 2007 to around $3 by September 2009, having gone below $1 at one point. When Cheniere planned and built the import terminal, most everyone believed that U.S. natural gas production would soon go into decline. But, only months after the terminal was operational, there was no longer any reason to bring LNG into the United States. It was just too expensive to compete with cheap domestic production which continued to grow.

So, Cheniere got the idea that it would reinvent itself as an LNG exporter. After all, because of the so-called shale revolution U.S. natural gas production was supposed rise for decades keeping U.S. domestic gas cheap. The rest of the world, Europe and Asia especially, would be hungry for LNG supplies and would pay dearly for them.

That was then. Now, of course, LNG prices have collapsed because of worldwide overexpansion of LNG capacity and flat demand in a world struggling to grow. Prices which had been above $11 in Europe and between $15 and $18 in Japan in 2012--while Cheniere was building its export terminal--have now swooned to $4.51 in Europe and $6 in Japan. Even back in 2012 Cheniere's foray into LNG exports seemed like a risky proposition to me.

What's worse for Cheniere is that the first signs of a U.S. natural gas production decline have appeared. Shale gas, the main driver of U.S. production growth, is expected to decline. That means that at some point supplies will shrink enough that U.S. prices will rise and likely make the margin between the U.S. price and European and Asian prices even smaller. And, as it turns out, the peak in U.S. natural gas production may arrive by 2020 if it hasn't already.

I have not scrutinized Cheniere's financial statements. I do not know the structure of its debt. Nor have I studied the arcana of the company's existing contracts for delivery of LNG cargoes. Cheniere reports that 87 percent of its capacity is under long-term contracts where all the price risk is taken by the buyer. If Cheniere makes money, it will make money based on service fees.

With LNG prices as low as they are and a glut of new LNG facilities still planned, will other buyers from other new facilities take all the price risk which seems only to the upside? Will they insist on a more equitable sharing of that risk? Will the low spot price of LNG lead to more short-term arrangements for the time being? These are all good questions for those contemplating an investment in LNG facilities.

An earnings report from Cheniere released last week missed estimates and may or may not indicate a problem. Famed short seller Jim Chanos--who has no doubt done all the analysis I've failed to do--thinks the company has many problems.

In December of last year I suggested that one possible surprise in the year ahead was that several approved U.S. LNG projects might be delayed or canceled, something that seemed unlikely at the time. In late July Royal Dutch Shell announced that it was delaying a decision on whether to build an LNG export facility in Louisiana. Earlier in the month, the company announced a delay for a similar project in British Columbia.

Just last week Sempra Energy announced a delay in further work on an expansion of its Louisiana-based LNG export operation.

Outside North America a cancellation in Australia and a delay in Cameroon show that the problem is worldwide.

Possibly making matters worse in the long run are planned natural gas deliveries by pipeline from Russia to China starting in 2019 that might sell for around $10 to $11. If that becomes the ceiling price in China, LNG from the United States will almost surely be unable to compete for the large Chinese market.

Because Cheniere is taking no price risk on almost all of its exports, the company may make out just fine no matter what happens to U.S. natural gas or world LNG prices. (I leave it to the financial analysts to figure out, for instance, whether Cheniere's arrangement with Britain's BG Group to supply gas at 115 percent of the Henry Hub price plus a $2.25 per million BTUs liquefaction fee will provide adequate cash flow.)

But, I'm guessing that Cheniere's first exports of LNG will in hindsight likely mark a bottom for U.S. natural gas prices--just as its first imports of LNG nearly coincided with the top of the gas market in 2008. U.S. natural gas production is likely to shrink in the coming years, and Cheniere is proposing to take more and more of that shrinking supply and export it. And, so are several other companies (though I doubt that many of them will complete their projects).

The question for investors is whether U.S. LNG operators will make money or simply destroy capital as Cheniere did in the past with its LNG import operations. The question for policymakers is whether shipping U.S. natural gas abroad is a good idea even as the country continues to import natural gas to meet its needs.*


*It is a supreme irony the some U.S. imports continue to arrive in the form of LNG, almost certainly under long-term contracts. Some of those imports arrived through Sabine Pass, Louisiana just last year, the site of Cheniere's new LNG export facility. The lion's share of U.S. imports, however, come via pipeline from Canada.

Disclosure: I have no investments related to Cheniere Energy.

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, The Oil Drum,, 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

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Climate change begins now (even if we are unprepared)

As record floods swept away whole villages in China and India in the month just past, I was reminded that climate change activist Bill McKibben likes to say, there is Earth and then there is Eaarth.

The first planet is the one most of us grew up on. It had a stable climate, generally friendly to bumper harvests; it was usually safe because of reasonable precautions against floods and droughts; and it was conducive to persistent economic growth that was supposed to lead to material prosperity for all.

Then there is Eaarth, a forbidding planet with a climate in chaos, one shifting constantly in ways that threaten life and property with too much rain or not enough--with drought that makes Western forests mere tinder and rainfall that makes Chinese and Indian farms and cities into lakes.

Climate change used to be about the future. Its bad effects were going to be visited upon those who come after us. But we have consistently underestimated the pace and impact of human-caused climate change from the day in 1896 when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first theorized about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

Now, climate change has arrived. Some like to call it climate chaos because it changes the climate in different places in different ways and at different rates. One thing we do know. The climate we grew up with is no longer.

That implies that our entire infrastructure of roads, rails, cities, farms, dams, in fact, nearly everything may be inadequate to the challenges posed by climate change. Our first priority ought to be securing the food we will need. That will mean developing better drought and flood resistant crops. In fact, it will mean rethinking all of agriculture which is now based on an industrial model implemented during a period of exceptional climate stability from the end of World War II through the end the last century.

This one task is daunting all by itself. And yet, we must also now think anew about rivers and levees; seawalls and relocation of cities; the viability of water sources including the sea itself (through desalinization).

We imagine wrongly that this rethinking is a mere engineering problem. We believe we will simply find technology that overcomes the problems created by climate change. But even if we do--and that is by no means certain since those problems aren't presenting themselves in an orderly and timely fashion--technology is not free. We will find it very, very expensive simply to protect our current ways of doing things rather than change them to accommodate climate change.

Let's look at some examples:

Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from one source, Lake Mead, the lake formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada-Arizona border. Because of an ongoing drought in the southwestern United States, one that began 15 years ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority came to fear that Lake Mead would fall below the authority's current two intakes leaving Las Vegas largely without water.

The cost of a now-completed third intake tunnel was $817 million. A companion pumping station scheduled for completion in 2020 will cost an additional $650 million. That's $1.47 billion for one additional intake for one city.

Despite this, water may be rationed starting next year if lake levels don't stabilize.

Oh, but wait, there's more. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the operators of Hoover Dam, are replacing turbines that generate much of Las Vegas's electricity because the current ones might not work as the lake level continues to decline. No cost estimate was provided.

When it comes to taking the train, you may decide not to if a climate change enhanced heat wave is in progress and likely to cause "sun kinks" in the tracks. These are deformations or bucklings resulting from exceptionally high heat. Derailments from this cause are already on the rise. What would it cost to make existing railroad tracks kinkproof? We don't know, but it's bound to be a lot. (By the way, taking the car won't be a solution as similar suddenly appearing buckling in roads can send cars flying. Not all kinks are as benign as the one I've linked to.)

Of course, sea level rise will be an enormously costly problem for the more than 2 billion people who live within 60 miles of a coastline. The Dutch have been holding the sea at back for centuries and have the most advanced and nuanced plan for addressing ongoing sea level rise. It isn't one that just holds the water back, but rather, in part, works with nature to provide for the natural ebb and flow of water.

The Dutch are good at engineering, too. They invested $3 billion in the so-called Europoort (sic) barrier that protects Rotterdam. That was 20 years ago, and so costs would be much higher today.

All these costs are in addition to mere maintenance of existing infrastructure for which the United States, for example, has already gotten a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ASCE estimated that just restoring the existing U.S. infrastructure to acceptable working order would cost $3.6 trillion by 2020. Many other countries have done a better job. But it's hard to see how the world's poor countries could both keep up with necessary maintenance AND build additional or enhanced infrastructure to meet the rigors of climate change.

Understandably, it's hard to plan when you have a wall of water coming at you as villagers in China and India experienced in recent floods. Both countries are faced with huge bills for an emergency response to what are turning out to be historic floods.

Right now humanity is like a patient without medical insurance or a doctor, one who visits the emergency room every time something serious goes wrong. That's a costly practice as is merely reacting to the inevitable catastrophes that climate change is now inflicting and will inflict upon us in the future. That said, it may be just as costly, though wiser, to prepare for climate change.

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, The Oil Drum,, 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