Can electric cars kill the oil industry & save the planet?

This is just a rant, and a half hour or banging the keyboard because it is raining and not nice for going out to plant more seeds in my back yard.

I noticed a lively thread on social media where I had commented that I did not feel strongly that electric cars would kill the oil industry or the dependence on fossil fuels, mainly because electricity, by and large, will continue to come from fossil fuels, unless we consider nuclear energy, which has its own bag of issues. That generated a nice and healthy chain of comments from learned and well meaning folks. I did not wish to bother them with any more lengthy posts from my cantankerous self. But, it was raining outside, and I was stuck indoor for a while. The coffee was hot, and so here I am, on my own blog.

As to having a choice on what kind of electricity one gets may be relevant in very few spots on the planet. For a vast majority, on a global scale – there is no choice. What you get is what is on offer, and fossil fuel burning plants that produce electricity is the global norm right now. So, I do not see electric cars to bring a death knell to fossil fuel industry.

Of course, there are many many other issues far more relevant than a car, with regard to fossil fuel industry. Folks say, though I have not read the actual measurements, that a single flight by a single person on a cross Atlantic round trip in a year, as one passenger in a three hundred passenger carrying commercial plane, makes you responsible for a higher carbon footprint annually, than you driving around as a travelling salesman clocking 300 KM every day of the year.

So, perhaps one should talk about electric aircraft, rather than electric cars, or perhaps conscientious folks should start a movement to boycott air travel altogether to save the planet.

But, again, on a global scale, one can consider how much of the fossil fuel goes into industrial scale agriculture used in new world nations such as Canada, USA and Australia and compare it with fossil fuels used for on surface of air transportation, to get a perspective on our fossil fuel consumption.

This of course does not cover the non commercial flights such as cargo flights that bring goodies to our neighbourhood but was produced in China or Indonesia. It also does not cover our tax payers money used to fly bombers over Syria to drop bombs over civilians in the name of fighting terrorism.

Fossil fuel usually means hydro-carbon. This means a series of molecules, of a thousand different variety, that has carbon and/or hydrogen in bond. ON one end of the spectrum is pure carbon. Folks think coal is pure carbon, but it is actually not so. It has hydrogen too, but much less. As the percentage of hydrogen increases, the fossil fuel gets lighter and lighter, into liquid mode and eventually into gaseous mode.  Among the lightest that is still around on earth in plentiful quantity are gasses like natural gas or methane, Liquified petroleum ( a mix of propane and butane) etc.

They are all called fossil fuel because, billions of years ago, they along with carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour constituted our atmosphere. There was no oxygen at all. One could argue that the CO2 in our atmosphere back then came from burning up whatever oxygen was available at the time with too much hot carbon. Either way, the atmosphere was full of stuff that would not allow us to live even one minute.

Then came a long chain of slow reactions, thought to be triggered and engineered by tiny living creatures we generally identify as micro-organisms, or bacteria. They invented photosynthesis, used sunlight as a source of energy, started splitting CO2 to grab the carbon, pull hydrogen out of water vapour and other hydrogen containing molecules and started constructing biological molecules that would be the foundation for a whole plethora of life forms. In the process, it did a few interesting things. It removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, produced oxygen as a byproduct, sequestered excess carbon and hydrocarbons into the ground and away from the atmosphere, and made it possible for plant and animal kingdom to evolve. And all those sequestered hydro-carbons are today known as fossil fuels, handiworks of billions of years of industrious micro-organisms that changed the planet and made it habitable for us air breathing animals.

Up came man or man’s predecessors, found out how to make fire out of wood, and started a two million year process of reversing the four billion years of work done by the bacteria.

It took our ancestor hominids and modern humans around two million years to finish off easily available wood on the surface of the planet, so clear cutting of forests became the next major source of energy. Around five hundred years ago, Europe finished off most of its forests so no more wood was available for energy. Man had invented a thing called “technology”, so buried “fossil fuel” called coal, could be pulled out of the earth, and used in place of wood.

Steam engine got invented so water that flooded coal mines could be emptied without manual labour. The rest was an inexorable march of human “technology” to undo the work of the bacteria.

It took around 400 years or so, for man to run out of enough coal on a global scale, to satisfy its ever increasing greed. So, around the beginning of the 20th century, large deposits of the next best thing – oil, was discovered and technology developed to use it for energy production. Being liquid, it had its other advantages that could be exploited better.

However, unlike wood that lasted us two million years, or coal that lasted about four hundred, mans ever increasing demand is finishing off oil is just over a hundred years. So we finished off solid fuel and liquid fuels and the last remaining frontier in fossil fuels is fuels that would be gaseous, but are somehow kept underground by those industrious micro-organisms as part liquid in strange conditions of pressure and temperature that is only possible deep underground or underwater.

So the next, and last, remaining source of “fossil fuel” appears to be natural gas and its other cousins such as LPG etc.

By now, demand for this gas, in places such as BC, Canada, is making the industry cut away last of the remaining forests, flood good agricultural lands, in order to make gigantic dams using the last of the meltwater fed rivers to produce hydro-electric power that can be used for hydraulically fracturing our stone foundations on an earth-quake prone continent, to get at the trapped natural gas, so that more “fossil fuels” can be extracted to power our ever more thirsty civilization.

How long would this natural gas last, compared to wood, coal and oil of the past? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is it would last far less than a hundred years. What the bacterial world achieved over 4 billion years, man will finish off in less than a hundred.

When hydro-carbons, or fossil fuel, is gone, what kind of energy is there in nearly inexhaustible quantity that man’s ever increasing greed is not likely to exhaust any time soon?

Far as I can see – it is nuclear fuel, and not wind power or solar or ocean waves etc all of which will remain as fringe. Nuclear fuel has kept the core of the earth hot, molten and magnetic ever since the planet formed and there is enough of it around.

However, just like burning fossil fuels have a nasty side effect. So has nuclear fuel. The reason mankind particularly chose Uranium for power generation and not one of the less dangerous nuclear fuels is because Uranium is a particularly good dual-technology fuel. It not only allows power generation, but it, and its synthetic derivative Plutonium also helps greatly in making atomic and eventually hydrogen bombs. Its great for warfare and weaponization.

So, in the long run, just as I do not believe electric cars are going to solve the planet’s environment on a global scale, I also do not see natural gas to solve it either, and do not see an end anytime soon, of an unending increase of nuclear power plants across the planet either. Till now, Uranium-Plutonium duo remains the most favoured technology which has allowed at least nine nations to develop nuclear bombs (USA, Russia, France, UK, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) and at least a few more merely months away from making one if needed.

Meanwhile, an equally increasing number of nations have now the capability of building rockets than could carry such bombs across continents and deliver it at your doorstep, raining death and destruction from the sky, all following the age old model of warfare designed to enhance someone’s economy.

There are, meanwhile, environmental scientists that are beginning to predict that the current business-as-usual model of world civilization is long past the point of no return and the planet has absolutely no chance of maintaining life forms as we know it now. We are already in the midst of the sixth mass extinction phase, which is not even a disputed argument any more. The last mass extinction happened 65 million years ago that make the dinosaurs go extinct. Today it is recognized to have happened because of a massive asteroid strike on planet earth. However, the current sixth mass extinction is not due to any extraterrestrial phenomenon. This one is wholly man made.

So, how much time does the planet have left. Again, your guess is as good as mine. But a rising group of scientists, mostly kept out of mainstream and out of public eye, are claiming that this century, the 21st will not end with the business as usual model still in place.

Some are predicting 95% of living animals we can now identify will be gone by the end of the century, along with 99% of human population. What will the earth look like – I have absolutely no idea, but cities as we know it will be gone, as would be civilization.

Maverick scientists like ex-Jet propulsion laboratory and NASA notable James Lovelock predicted some years ago through his gaia series works that world has less than thirty or so years left before all hell breaks lose. That was made a decade  ago, so perhaps today, by his calculation, we have less than ten years left. His advise at the time was – there is actually nothing one can do to reverse this cataclysm, so might as well put your feet on the table, have a coffee and enjoy life while it still lasts.

I do not know if Lovelock’s prediction and time table is correct, but instinctively, I believe him to be fully correct even if the time table is arguable, and the reason I believe this to be correct is not just on account of man using up fossil fuel alone, but on an increasing different ways including our economy, money creation, agriculture, ever increasing population, ever increasing material demand made by the so called ‘Developmentality’ of civilized humans etc etc etc. So, in my mind, we are the very last generation of living people that are seeing the world as a continuum and peaking of a specific trend of human civilizational evolution and planetary sustainability.

For the next generation on – it is going to be a dog eat dog downward slide where it gets to be impossible for the bacterial world to keep maintaining the earth’s environment in a habitable range for air breathing animals in a manner that we humans of today can still relate to.

Time for a coffee ?

Eocene thermal maximum in a bowl of soup.

“How much time?”
Neil was looking at the clips of movies he had taken recently, mostly of wild ducks. In one clip, a couple of hooded mergansers were bathing and cleaning themselves vigorously, one in the water and the other standing on a floating log. Neil loved it. He decided to use it later, to make a home movie. That was one of his hobbies.
Mabel sat next to him, watching. She was not there when he took the video, but religiously saw all the still shots, of which there were a few hundred, as well as all the video clips, some half a dozen.
The conversation had moved on to the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock. Neil had just finished his latest book – The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Some of the points raised by Lovelock went against even his own earlier belief, and that of many of his environmentally conscious friends, he could not brush them off. A large part of what Lovelock said, made sense.
It was in that context that Neil had mentioned that the planet had crossed a significant threshold – a point of no return. Earth was almost certainly going to heat up to a level where large swaths of its landmass would be unsuitable for human habitation as we know it today. In that sense, the planet to a large extent is doomed, and modern industrial man was largely responsible for it – except for one wild card in the game, Gaia. The question was no more if, but when the planet was going to deteriorate rapidly and what Gaia might do in response.
Neil turned to Mabel.
She had been working today. They were not supposed to meet. He himself had just gotten home from work. Tomorrow was also a working day.
But, it felt good to spend time together. He had often thought of asking Mabel to move in with him, but could not bring himself to do that just yet. Mabel, meanwhile, would usually call him up once a day or so, and drop in at his place every few days after work. Neil had only been to her place once, for a few minutes. She had a small one room apartment on a multi-story building. He felt a bit out of place there. Mabel never asked him to spend the night there. Perhaps she sensed he was not comfortable. It was she that usually spend the night at his place, whenever that happened. Her white jeep parked in front of his house was a sort of familiar feature in the neighborhood by now.
He was still adjusting to the fact that Mabel might be a bit young for him, and could not shake off the thought that she might eventually tire of him and move on to someone closer to her age. He was aware that although Mabel was an adult now, she nourished a six year long teenage crush on him ever since she first saw him as a sixteen year old high school girl. He was already twenty eight at the time, and was not even aware that she liked him. That was a long time ago. Today, he was a bachelor of thirty four and she was a mere twenty two. Apart from years, he also felt a generation apart both culturally and mentally. And yet, they seemed to gel well. She brought warmth and a freshness into his life, apart from being in totally in synch with his interests and hobbies and thoughts. She was good for his ego, Neil decided. But perhaps he was not the best thing for her life. This was one thought he could not rid himself off. Being a somewhat private person, he found it difficult to discuss these issues with her face to face. He was also worried that he might hurt her by questioning their affair.
It was a mess, but hopefully, would end in a good outcome for both of them.
“How long?” She asked. She had such a fresh face and a calming appearance – it tugged at Neil’s heart.
He held her face and kissed her on her mouth. She closed her eyes. Her mouth softened. She had full, pliant lips. It can be addictive – Neil thought.
Mabel opened her eyes at the end of it, and gave him a small peck on his lips in return. “How long?”
“How long do we have on this planet ?”
She nodded.
“Well, I hope it would be longer than it takes for us to kiss a little.” He chuckled, teasing her.
She cuffed him. “No, seriously.”
“Well, opinion is divided on it. If you ask many of the western Governments, including Canada and USA, global warming is a myth or at best an unproven theory. Therefore, these Governments do not any more feel the need to do anything significant singly or collectively, to address this issue. Some are blaming China of today or India of the near future, for being responsible for the mess. China of course is blaming the west for adding all the carbon di-oxide for the last few centuries through dirty industrialization in the first place. So, we are in a blame game right now.”
“Never mind China, Canada or USA and the blame game. How much time does a man in Tahiti have?”
“Man in Tahiti ?” Neil scratched his head. “I don’t believe I know that man, in tahiti.” He said in mock seriousness.
She cuffed him again.
“Well, if you ask me, we have crossed the point of no return already. How long the earth will take to make it hell for humans, is something no one can correctly predict. But a few decades to a century is the time span when the serious deterioration begins to hit us. So, you and I are likely to see the beginning of it. In fact we are already seeing the beginning of it for a long time, just did not wish to acknowledge it for what it is. But more than you and me, it is the next generation kids, and the next, that will really see the crap hit the fan, so to speak.”
Mabel contemplated the issue. “Why is it that so many scientists cannot tell us when this will begin to get nasty and how to prevent a catastrophe? We are an advanced technology civilization, are we not?”
“Are we?” he asked back.
Mabel did not answer but widened her eyes at him. She did that, whenever confronted with a question that could have multiple answers.
“There are not too many independent pure scientists left in the world, Mabel.” Neil opined. “What we have is truck-loads of quasi-scientists that are funded by selfish organizations that pollute science and destroy neutral analysis. They want theories to come out protecting the business as usual model. Everything must relate to making a profit. Even curbing green house gas emission must be designed such that folks would trade on carbon credits and make money. Its disgusting to even think how little the world really cares of the future. We have bankers, politicians, corporate moguls and media pundits, animal right activists, sustainable living advocates, bleeding heart liberals and right wing conservatives – all pushing their own partial agenda on the table and making everything bewilderingly complex. Any debate on the issue stops being rational and scientific and descends into a cacophony of noise.”
“Hmm.. We need some clear thinking persons that can talk – right ?”
“Right. Dalai Lama is one clear thinking person. I do not know if he has read James Lovelock though. I know he is technically savvy and quite aware of many things. I read a book by him titled The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality”. He is certainly wiser and more balanced than any other living religious guru that I know of. He is aware of global warming, but he is not the right person to think outside the box on this particular issue. It needs a scientists that is unfettered by interest groups.”
“James Lovelock is that person?”
“Well, he is among a handful that are not speaking on behalf of a lobby. Also, he has a clearer way to seeing things that I admire. This includes his views on nuclear energy, which he supports. Many environmentalist I know vehemently opposes nuclear power plants. That is an important issue, but not the main one any more. The train has left the station when it comes to preventing global warming, you know? Developping emission free energy is going to be important, but a far more challenging necessity is facing us – that of turning our idea of modern civilization as well as man’s place on this planet on its head. But it is too late to think we can prevent catastrophic global warming.”
“You are saying it is too late to do anything, therefore do nothing ? That sounds defeatist. Not like you.” She looked at him.
“Thats not what Lovelock is saying. As to me, I have a more resigned view at it – perhaps similar to Dalai Lama. I have decided not to get excited and accept a few hard facts.”
Mabel contemplated that. “What are those hard facts?”
Neil counted them in his finger – “A) a human being is an accidental evolutionary outcome that is neither chosen by god, nor permanent, and therefore, if man survives or not is not so interesting for the planet”
Mabel nodded. “And B)?”
Neil cleared his throat. “B) whatever happens, was perhaps going to happen anyway. If man was destined to damage its own environment and cause mass extinction of species including his own, well that was perhaps how things were to happen anyway.”
“Thats all?”
“There is more. C) man is not unique in changing the earth biosphere. Other creatures have been doing it a long time before man came. In fact, if other organisms did not alter the atmosphere, higher oxygen breathing mammals, birds, fish and reptiles would not even have evolved. So, nothing particularly earth shattering to know that man is responsible for bringing massive change to the planets atmosphere, and gaia will react to it like it has done in the past. The only difference is, Man did what he did so fast, that Gaia is likely to kick back equally fast, and many of the living creatures may not have enough time to adjust to it.”
“And that includes man, right?”
“Yes. It particularly affects man.”
“So is Lovelock saying there is no need to do anything?”
“Thats not what he is saying. I think his point is – stop trying to engage in superficial efforts and lip service to climate change issues. Stop promoting bogus technologies just to make money, in the name of alternative energy source. Stop pretending the planet can sustain eight billion people and their pets and domestic animals without damaging the environment irreversibly. And finally, accept that damage is irreversible, and instead of attempting to stop it, change your civilization, redraw it from scratch, and take steps now, so that even a smaller number of humans at least have a chance to survive the climatic onslaught that is facing us.”
“Thats sounds like a doomsday warning.”
Neil nodded. “Lovelock is a scientist that worked in the Jet Propulsion Lab in California many years ago. He is a known scientist, albeit long retired, with a theory that the planet earth is not a passive element, where all changes in its climate is a response to external conditions. It is a dynamic entity, Gaia, which also triggers internal reorganization as a response to external stimuli. Scientists almost always miss-calculate earths degrading climate because its computer models are flawed and because it cannot understand that the planet is not passive, but active. According to Lovelock, man has damaged this bio-system enough to prevent the planet from self-controlling its atmosphere, and we have entered a phase of runaway climate change, like it happened 55 million years ago. But this time, it is expected to happen much more rapidly.”
Neil got up and moved to the kitchen. He was going to warm up some soup and vegetables. Mabel joined him, taking out cutlery and setting the small table inside the kitchen. Sometimes they sit down there and finish a meal. It feel more cozy than the large dining table in the next room.
“How fast or slow did the warming happen 55 million years ago. Since humans were not there, what caused it? What kind of creatures lived there at the time?”
“Too many questions. I don’t know all the answer. It happened at the onset of the Eocene era.”
“Whats Eocene ?”
“Well, you know about the age of the dinosaurs, right ?”
“They died out, in a phase of rapid mass extinction of many kinds of living creatures. That was the end of the Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago. That opened up the field for diminutive mammals that were unable to gain stature under competition of the dinosaurs. So the next phase is often called the age of mammals. That started around 65 million years ago and continues till today. This phase has been broken into some segments. The first segment immediately after the dinosaurs is called Paleocene. That era ended at around 55 million years ago, and the next era started – Eocene. It is the boundary between Paleocene and Eocene when the earth suddenly warmed up with very high concentration of atmospheric carbon di-oxide comparable to today. Scientists think that the warming happened over a period of say twenty thousand years or so. That was slow enough for many of the animals and plants to move to relatively cooler regions and evolve to adopt the new environment. The planet would take almost twenty million years to come to a stage where ice sheets can again form on Antarctica, the land mass at South pole.”
Mabel tried to absorb that news and relate to it. She had never been outside of Canada. Antarctica was just a name. She could not remember any friend or relative ever talk about Antarctica seriously. Except perhaps Neil.
Neil continued, “But today, Lovelock believes the same sudden warming is likely to happen within a century or so, which will not be enough for most of the living creatures to adjust. Humans will have to take a very big hit.”
“Yeah. I am not a very religious man. But a religious Hindu might say ‘Hai Ram’ which would be his way of expressing the same thing, in the name of a different God.”
Mabel smiled ruefully. “Its terrible. Does that warming up have a name, what happened at Paleocene-Eocene boundary?”
Neil tried cocking an eyebrow, and failed. Mabel was picking up terminology fast enough. She had a keen interest, which pleased as well as tickled him.
“I think it is called Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximus or something. In short – PETM. You can see it in the chart in Wikipedia – a sudden sharp spike in Atmospheric Co2 content and a long warming of the planet.”

PETM spike - Wikipedia

The microwave let out of small chime, indicating it had finished heating the food, having delivered the desired thermal maximum in their bowl of soup.