Global Warming Consequences: Part of our “Trump Watch”

house-on-stiltsA decade or so ago, Bjorn Lomborg, the famous “Skeptical Environmentalist”(title of his book) opined that it would be hopeless and a wrong allocation of trillions of dollars to get the world to transform its energy generation means and transportation equipment by switching away from coal and oil fast enough to avoid a global warming catastrophe.. He correctly assumed that politics, inertia, and lack of feasibility would not allow such a disruption of the world and its lifestyles. Therefore,  a better use of at least some of this money would be (a) to spend it to eradicate major population ills (aids, malaria, plagues, etc) and (b) to finance the inevitable relocation of population and infrastructure to higher ground as ocean levels rise. (See my blog post dated July 13, 2013).  Implicit in this approach would be to build structures or dykes to protect areas that cannot readily be moved. It is now becoming obvious that the second part of Lomborg’s recommendation is already underway.

While many communities along the coast are considering water level rises measured in inches (with even those already causing major problems in Miami Beach and elsewhere), Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has prepared a Master Plan detailing $ 50 billion in investments over five decades to deal with the huge amount of flooding expected that has already caused the state to lose 1800 square miles of land, equivalent to 80 Manhattans (Bloomberg Business Week, Jan 30- Feb 5,2017 – also the source of the graphic above). The so-called 100-year flood is expected to raise water levels by 3 to 14 feet(!). The report incidentally onsiders 14 feet to be the maximum practical height that a house can be raised(!).

But let’s revert to global warming, climate change and carbon. I believe that global warming deniers have largely lost credibility. Deniers of the role of Greenhouse gases are still un-persuaded by scientific evidence, but in many cases (e.g. Mid-West farmers) are actively dealing with climate change, not particularly interested or at least unable to fathom what’s causing it. You could say that Trump is in this camp. Then, there is a large group, probably the largest one, that believes it is good to reduce emission of Greenhouse gases even if that just slows down what may well be the inevitable. It may not be inevitable if the projection of GHG effects on climate and sea levels are near the low end and the pace of installation of renewable energy sources is at the high end. The Paris treaty plays into this scenario. Finally, there is the group that wants to eliminate fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but they will have little influence on policy and actions.

At this point we will have to watch and see what Trump plans to do in this area. When there are some specific actions to review,  I certainly plan to comment. At this point, given Trump’s domiciles in Manhattan Mar el Lago, as well as ownership of golf courses on several coasts, I am guessing that he will be more concerned about water level rises than are the people in Colorado ad Utah.

Of course, the EPA’s effectively mandated shutdown of a number coal-fired power plants had broader goals than reduction of carbon dioxide emission: it was also intended to greatly reduce the emission of coal-based toxic chemicals in the flue gases. The EPA’s reliance on the Clean Air Act as legal justification for these shutdowns, agreed to by the Supreme Court, may make a reversal of these shutdowns difficult – particularly when some of these plants have or are switching to cheap natural gas. As for “Clean Coal” plants, a term used by Trump in campaign speeches in West Virginia and elsewhere,  this will be an unlikely solution as my January 15th post has discussed. Today’s issue of the New York Times discussed a Chinese initiative to build a large number of coal gasification plants similar to Kemper and Sasketchewan in an area very abundant with coal. These will make “synthetic natural gas”, but without the benefit of capturing and using or storing the emitted byproduct CO2. Carbon pollution in this area of China will be immense. So, no “Clean Coal”.  Mr Trump, are you reading this?


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Trump Administration and Climate Change: We’ll follow developments closely

imgresIt now becomes important to find out what Donald Trump and his cabinet plan to do to reverse the previous administration’s effort to slow down the pace of global warming. Also, we must monitor the choices the new administration are making in enacting its energy policy. Therefore, I plan to write and comment frequently on specific actions that the new administration is taking in these two areas.

Trump’s  well known pronouncements denying the effects of CO2 on atmospheric warming and his disdain for science in general are a good indication of where we are heading. Under Obama, a number of steps were taken to move the country in the direction of renewable energy, with most of these having economic justification, in some cases aided by government subsidies. Importantly, the U.S. became a signatory to the Paris agreement that outlined a path toward a lower carbon future. So, that is the starting point the Trump administration inherited as it starts to move in quite a different direction. Actions to implement Trump’s intention to undo Obama’s environmental legacy must be carried out either via executive orders or by Congressional vote. While some of his cabinet choices (e.g.  Rex Tillerson at State and Ray Zinke at Interior) appear to have a different view (Tillerson proposed a carbon tax), his choice at DOE   (Scott Pruitt ) seems even more adamant than Trump as a global warming denier. So, we can expect Congress to go along with Trump on much of his new agenda. But it will not be easy to change some of the current policies, as we may see. My first post in this new departure happens to be relatively uncritical of Trump.

Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines: One of Trump’s first steps was to give a go-ahead to these two projects. Much of the work on both of these pipelines has already been completed. Keystone was halted by Obama because of the high carbon content of tar sands crude oil, while Dakota was halted due to protests by local Indian tribes. Both projects will now be completed.

Looking first at Dakota, there is much in favor of this pipeline, the only negative being the potential for a leak in the section going under the Missouri River. There are many U.S. pipelines under rivers in the continental U.S. and we have long decided that this is a risk that must be borne. The fact that it may affect drinking water on tribal lands is far outweighed by the benefit of not having thousands of unsafe tank cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken wells to mid-west refineries, creating a much greater risk of water pollution – to say nothing of fires and casualties – when trains are derailed and cars spill crude oil, a fairly common occurrence. It will behoove the government to do everything possible to provide clean water to the Indians in the very low probability occurrence of a Dakota pipeline leak under the Missouri.

The Keystone pipeline situation is more complicated. The U.S. already imports a lot of crude oil from Canada and will now import more. This will back out crude imports from “less friendly” nations. Also, U.S. oil companies make some of the oil in the tar sands. The overall tar sands operation will continue with or without the pipeline, since Canada will get this oil to other destinations, mainly overseas. However, tar sands producers will now step up production bringing more of thus carbon-heavy oil oil to markets. The tar sands recovery and transformation operation in Alberta itself involves a considerable amount of carbon emissions and is therefore a less desirable method of producing crude oil. So, the net of Keystone is more CO2 emissions than if the pipeline were not built. An unknown factor are the future economics of tar sands crude versus U.S. crude. While some refineries can run heavy (e.g. Venezuela, tar sands) crude, they will preferentially buy U.S. crude if it is cheaper. If the Saudis buy the large Lyondell heavy crude-based refinery, it will be fed with Saudi crude.

Trump’s claim regarding job creation for these pipelines ring hollow. Both pipelines are nearly complete. There will initially be thousands of new construction jobs, but very few permanent jobs thereafter.


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Lifeline for “Clean Coal”?

images This blog has covered the long history of technologies and approaches that would allow coal-fired power plants to keep operating while the carbon dioxide in flue gases can be captured and either used or stored in some manner. The most promising of these approaches applies only to new plants that gasify the coal (rather than burn it), allowing the CO2 to be captured in an efficient manner. When such plants are built close to oil fields that can beneficially use CO2 injection as a tertiary recovery method the economics of the operation are substantially improved. The only problem is that such plants, as exemplified by the Kemper plant in Missouri, are enormously expensive (See my Jan. 2nd, 2016 post) and also have a high “parasitic” load of energy charges related to carbon dioxide recovery, that raise their operating cost substantially.

Here we segue to an interesting situation that involves an unlikely alliance, including the Kemper plant, an old “Synthetic Natural Gas” from coal plant, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitcamp from North Dakota, some Texas senators and Donald Trump. There is a current Federal tax credit of $10/ton of carbon for CO2 captured and reused for oil recovery. One of the recipients is Dakota Gasification Company, supported by DOE and built in 1984 to make synthetic natural gas from coal and now capturing CO2 (produced as a pure stream) and selling it for tertiary oil recovery.  Another project built partly with DOE financing (like Kemper) by NRG Energy Company in the Houston area at a time when crude oil was $ 100 per barrel (see my Sept. 8, 2014 post) uses amine scrubbing to capture a portion of the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant and sells it via pipeline to a depleted oil field, presumably receiving the $ 10/ton tax credit.  The owner of the Kemper plant, Senator Heitcamp,  and other congress members are now lobbying for raising the tax credit to $ 35/ton for the first 12 years of plant operation.

So now we perhaps get a glimmer about Donald Trump’s Clean Coal fixation. While I doubt that he understands the technology behind the approach, nor the economics, nor the fact that an enormous amount of Federal money has partly financed (as first-of-a kind projects) and continues to support all three of these plants with tax credits, he can say that there is a way for coal to be used and captured since real plants are doing that. There are, however, important questions whether real companies will build more plants like Kemper, which overran its initial buget by 200 percent. Even if higher tax credits are established, the investment for these plants will be prohibitively higher than for natural gas-fired power plants. Even if Trump’s DOE under new management is willing to grant massive subsidies to new coal-fired plants using gasification instead of combustion of coal, it seems doubtful that Congress – now much more conservative and negative to government subsidies- will subsidize such boondoggles (which would no longer be first-of-a kind plants worthy of government support). However, stay tuned!


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Metamaterials: A possible nano breakthrough

xxxxximages    Readers of my blog have probably recognized that I write more about energy than about chemical developments. This is not by choice, but because I have over the last year found little to write about in the chemical world. Scouring, for example, Chemical and Engineering News’ annual issue of noteworthy chemical developments, I was somewhat underwhelmed, to coin a phrase, except perhaps in the pharma field, which I don’t write about. So, it was a really interesting to read about recent advances in the nanotechnology field that didn’t just announce, as is often the case, how a nanomaterial was added to a conventional material to achieve a special effect. (My skepticism appeared in a blog post dated Feb. 22, 2014 and other posts) The field of research I describe below covers a new area termed metamaterials: nanocomposite structures made up of metals or plastics that exhibit properties “not found in nature”.

The rather complex chart shown at left confirms the fact that very light materials (think aerosol foams) have little or no strength while the opposite is true at the other end. Materials selected for their tensile or compression strength tend to be heavy. The aim of this research was to find out whether it is possible to develop light materials that have much more strength than would be expected from their weight or density. At this point, if readers are interested and have the time, they might go to their computer and look at a presentation on Youtube by Dr. Julia Greer entitled Materials by Design: Three-dimensional nano-architected metamaterials.

Research has found that conventional materials like metals, glass, ceramics, etc exhibit quite different characteristics at nanoscale. Ceramics can be made stronger and much less brittle, glass fiber can be made ductile and most materials become much stronger(although they may also become weaker). When constructed into lattices, they can exhibit great strength while being essentially composed of 99+% air. Dr. Greer shows a picture of such a microlattice “brick” balanced on top of a blooming dandelion flower(!)  Nanolattices can thus occupy a space on the chart well above that of materials in the lower left (Green) side of the diagram, with a strength 10 to 100 times that of materials with similar density. Preparation of these materials can involve technology similar to that used in 3D printers.

Commercial application of this technology may not be far away: promising areas include battery design, acoustical equipment, solar panels, medical imaging, etc. It will be interesting to see how quickly metamaterials find their way into our lives.




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Fracking Breakthrough Substantiates A Once Questionable Forecast

frackingIt was not so long ago that a petroleum industry forecaster famously said that the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of crude oil. Now, this projection may in the not so distant future become reality as the Permian Basin in West Texas is now considered to have crude oil reserves large enough to produce oil at a rate which, together with other U.S. oil production, could easily exceed the amount that the Saudis will be pumping as their own reserves decline. And much of the new U.S. oil will be produced by hydraulic fracturing,  more-permiansince continuously improving fracking technology can yield oil profitably in the $ 45-50 per barrel range. (OPEC recently agreed to reduce its members’ production so as to bring supply and demand in balance, with oil prices now stabilizing in this price range and oil from fracking provides an ever growing amount of crude oil for the world market.)


Getting a bit more granular, here are some of the reasons why fracking in the Permian basin and to some extent in other shale-rich areas is becoming more productive and less expensive: (1)  The lateral length of wells over the last three years has increases from 4000 to 7300 feet(with as many as three wells all from one rig), (2) The amount of proppand (sand) has doubled and (3) the well decline rate, which at start of shale fracking was 90 percent after the first four months, is now 18 percent(!).

Now another development: Trump’s presidency assures that fracking will increase rather than declining due to local opposition – particularly since there is very little antipathy to this technology in Texas. And Federal lands with rich shale deposits are likely to be auctioned off over the next several years.

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U.S. Chemical Balance of Trade Will Turn Positive If New Administration Changes Tax Law

imgresAs an unreconstructed cheerleader for the petrochemical industry and its massive exports, it has always been annoying to me that our balance of trade is nevertheless negative due to our similarly massive import of pharmaceuticals.pharma-imports The line with dots represents the balance of trade, as shown in the American Chemistry Council’s Guide to the Business of Chemistry 2016. Pharma imports (in blue) are at historic highs  ( most likely due to Obamacare, though we should acknowledge that millions of people are now getting the meds they could not previously afford). Note that these high imports have nothing to do with labor costs (as, China-, Mexico- and other imports from low labor cost countries do), since labor plays essentially no role in pharma production. This is, as said earlier, largely a tax issue. The ten top global pharma companies include Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, and have annual sales totalling $ 150 billion. These firms produce a substantial percentage of their pharmaceuticals outside the U.S., send them to the U.S.  yet are allowed by our tax laws to keep much of the profits on these sales building up in countries with lower corporate income taxes.(e.g. Ireland). It has been estimated that U.S. companies as a whole have around $ 400 billion of cash stashed overseas in profits taxed at low levels in those countries. Pharma firms lead in this area.  so two questions arise: First, if these U.S. firms are allowed to moved some of this cash to the U.S. at a relatively low tax rate, the “windfall” to the U.S. government could be used to pay for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Just as importantly, lower U.S. corporate taxes would presumably induce these companies, as well as the big European firms (Roche, Novartis, Sanofi, etc) to shift more of their production to the U.S. where their biggest market exists. again

Looking at the numbers in this graphic leads one to a few tentative conclusions relative to U.S. pharma imports, which totaled 86.1 billion dollars in 2015. Firstly, China, India and Japan export a total of only $ 20 billion in pharmaceuticals to the whole world, so we know right away that the bulk of U.S. imports come from Europe. Secondly, the largest pharma exporters by far are Germany and Switzerland. Not surprisingly, the largest global companies are headquartered in the U.S., Germany and Switzerland. Germany has already decided that the best way to serve the U.S. market with Mercedes, BMW and Audi cars is to build in the U.S.  The pharma industry is, of course, quite different (think of car styles and shipping costs for cars), but it seems reasonable to believe that global pharma companies will produce more in the U.S. and that our balance of trade in chemicals/pharmaceuticals will therefore be favorably affected under the new administration.

Looking at the broader picture, electronic imports to the U.S. in 2015 amounted to $ 332 billion!.Vehicles $ 283 billion! Apple is warehousing its cash (greater than Pfizer’s) abroad. Trump is already challenging the company to move production of the iphone to the U.S. Perhaps our infrastructure problems may soon receive some help.

(Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary, but perhaps some good will nevertheless come from the other guy’s victory, assuming Congress and the pharma lobbyists can fashion a new tax approach)


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Fish drowning in plastic garbage!

kkkkkiHere is an interesting sequence from someone who has happily chronicled the amazing growth of petrochemicals over the past sixty years: (a) Dustin Hoffman learns about  “plastics” from a Dutch uncle upon graduation (b) Ethylene becomes the largest-growing petrochemical and still is because of polyethylene packaging material (c) About a third of all plastic packaging ends up in lakes and oceans. (d) By 2050 the weight of plastics in the ocean will equal that of the weight of all fish in the ocean! Is there something we can do about that?ccccBoth graphics courtesy of Chemical & Engineering News, Oct. 17, 2016 and Ellen McArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy. Rethinking the Future of Plastics

It has now become quite clear that recycling and incineration of plastic garbage has not solved the problem of disposal of (primarily plastic) packaging material of which 70% ends up in bodies of water or landfill. Municipalities have taken baby steps to reduce the use of plastic packaging, but if we want to solve or at least mitigate this problem, much more needs to be done.

Interestingly, the plastics industry is now engaged in a campaign to increase the use of plastics packaging for produce and meats, rightly pointing out that cucumbers will stay fresh much longer on grocery shelves if they wrapped in plastic and that steaks can last weeks on shelves if packaged in more sophisticated plastic packaging than currently in use. It estimates huge reductions in food waste (important, as population grows) through greater use of plastics.

Folks (as Trump likes to say), we are heading for a messy future as by 2050 plastics share of the carbon budget will grow from the current 1% to 15% and sea levels will rise remarkably. I guess the good news is that fish and plastics will have more water to swim in.

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