Life is sweeter than you think in 2014…

Jokingly, Rao pointed out that Americans are starting 2014 with an optimistic outlook:

(…) it’s tough, but let’s just write off polar bears and groundwater pollution from fracking already and move on.

But life is even sweeter than Rao thinks. Indeed, polar bears are not going extinct contrary to what the press and government research told us for the last few years:

A narrative of imminent polar bear extinction pervaded the analysed material. Estimates of current numbers were framed to suggest that polar bears are experiencing cataclysmic decline. (…)

In the 1960s, scientific estimates, based on numbers of pelts sold historically to the Hudson’s Bay Company and other traders, estimated a global population of 5000 wild polar bears. It is impossible to compare these figures with the current estimates of 20,000–25,000, due to the improvements in monitoring methods and technologies, greater numbers of polar bear scientists, and greater collaborations with indigenous northerners. However, (…) it is widely accepted that bear numbers have, at least until recently, been on the increase and that, at least historically, polar bears have not existed in greater numbers. (Tyrrella and Clark, 2013)

Tyrrella and Clark do not tell us to go hunt down polar bears. If we want to keep them around, we have to take sensible measures. However, they are simply not going extinct.

What about fracking and the resulting shale gas? It is true that there has been at least one case of methane water contamination by some company that did not follow sensible guidelines. However, methane is non-toxic. And methane naturally occurs in drinking water. People reported bubbles of methane in their wells as far back as then XIXth century. The real problem with methane is that it is a potent greenhouse gas: we would rather not release it in the air needlessly.

What about the toxic chemicals used as part of fracking? It does not end up in the drinking water:

Many claims of contaminated water wells due to shale gas extraction have been made. None has shown evidence of chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing fluids. (The Royal Society, 2012)

Of course, hydraulic fracturing uses lots of water and some nasty chemicals. We would rather not have such technologies. But everything is relative. Nasty chemicals are involved in making the electronics you are using to read this blog post. Overall, hydraulic fracturing is clearly positive:

Globally, the [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas is likely to be smaller than the coal footprint. Thus, a shift would slow global warming and decrease related cost for climate change adaptation measures – assuming all other factors remain constant. (…) Over the entire lifecycle, (…), power from coal consumes more water than power from shale gas (…). Shale gas drilling also causes less surface disturbance than coal mining. (Jenner and Lamadrid, 2012)

We should keep on studying fracking and we need sophisticated monitoring techniques. However, it is not any more dangerous than thousands of other industrial activities. And it pollutes a lot less than burning coal!

31 thoughts on “Life is sweeter than you think in 2014…”

  1. Its literally squeezing out the last remaining bits of oil-like ressources, which we should leave to our kids. It’s a technology without future, but were using up every bit without having a work plan for what to do afterwards yet.

  2. Polar bears are infringing on human settlements more than ever before, and the theory is that their habitat is shrinking (sea ice). This presents a real problem. It is however, just a symptom. We can (as Rao suggests) just get over the loss of polar bears. What is a serious problem is the shrinking of polar ice, which is real, measurable and serious.

    The loss of albedo from the ice will accelerate warming in the northern hemisphere. The increased global surface temperatures are already causing severe weather problems, and these will intensify as temperatures continue their rise.

    As for fracking – you are right in that natural gas is more desirable than coal. That however is the favourite straw-man argument of the fracking apologists. The truth is, even the shale-gas millionaires are not getting much gas. Apparently Pickens and his ilk are merely successful real estate speculators for the most part. They buy mineral rights for cheap (governments will sell them cheap on the hope that they will be developed and create resource extraction industries and revenues). They “prove” the existence of reserves by fracking. They sell the rights to oil and gas companies.

    However, these reserves often prove expensive to extract – or do not pass environmental muster, or the price of gas is too low for economical exploitation, so the land then lies fallow for decades. This has happened in many parts of Pennsylvania.

    We already have many good substitutes for fossil fuel energy. Conservation and efficiency has reduced potential consumption by 20%, and is good for another 30-50%. I think “small nuclear” is very promising. On a larger scale, I think India will lead the world with its Thorium program. We will finally see clean, safe and cheap energy worldwide. Solar and wind and tidal are good for a small portion of load.

    In short, if we are looking at fracking as a solution, we had better be sure the problem is worth the trouble.

  3. @Dominic

    ” I notice that several green parties are much more nuanced in their nuclear stance than they used to be.”

    Maybe somewhere in the world. Not in North America:

    Energy industry: No to nuclear (…) The best energy choices to respond to the climate crisis should be those that deliver the greatest reduction of GHG per dollar invested. By this criterion, nuclear energy is among the very worst options. (…) Nuclear energy is inevitably linked to nuclear weapons proliferation. (Green Party of Canada)

    Platform of the Greens

    Use federal investments, purchasing, mandates, and incentives to shut down nuclear power plants. (American Green Party)

    Greenpeace has always fought – and will continue to fight – vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants. (Greenpeace)

  4. @Dominic

    What is a serious problem is the shrinking of polar ice, which is real, measurable and serious.

    It is real in the arctic during the summer, yes. But some warming leads to higher ecological productivity, thus more food… and possibly healthier bears. In fact, we have no evidence that, overall, polar bears have suffered despite the fact that there is a whole lot less ice in the summer. Some bears are better off, some bears are worse off, depending on where they live.

    Polar bears in the southern regions may go die out (e.g., James Bay), but there are vast regions in the arctic where there is no polar bear because the ice is frozen solid.

    We also have evidence that there was, at a time, much less ice in the arctic during summers (maybe half what we have now) a few thousands years ago… and somehow polar bears did not die out.

    However, these reserves often prove expensive to extract – or do not pass environmental muster, or the price of gas is too low for economical exploitation, so the land then lies fallow for decades.

    (1) We know that quite a bit of shale gas has been pulled out of the ground. We know because it put market pressure on prices. No, it is not just speculators that did that…

    (2) I do not feel sorry for oil companies that buy worthless exploitation rights. If they have been had, it is their problem, not our problem.

    We already have many good substitutes for fossil fuel energy.

    We really don’t. We will, in the future, I am sure… but, right now, we don’t.

    I think “small nuclear” is very promising.

    Maybe. But from what I hear, we haven’t had any innovation in this domain for the last 30 years because government regulations will not allow it.

    It is just too expensive for anyone to try and build new nuclear power stations using alternative technology…

    Granted, Indians might pull it off… but even if they do, it will take at least a decade for us to revise our regulations to allow the importation of their technology.

    And you can be quite certain that this would be opposed by every environmental group… and we would hear no end of denunciation of the “nuclear lobby”.

    Our safest bet for the next decade is certainly fossil fuel… alternatives will not pan out.

  5. @me

    Its literally squeezing out the last remaining bits of oil-like ressources, which we should leave to our kids.

    Had our ancestors done this… we would have no computer… you would not be reading this blog post. You’d probably be going hungry… and you’d be burning wood for heat… most forests would be gone… trees and animals would have gone extinct. We would probably be in a constant state of war and starvation.

  6. I really think you are echoing the dinosaurs of the fossil fuel lobby. Companies that have chosen to go energy efficient have increased there profitability substantially.

    Geothermal, solar, wind all have larger niches than is currently being used in North America. Germany is not less efficient or cost effective than we are, yet they use far more renewable and green energy.

    As for 10 years and government regulation – that is another canard from the fossil fuel lobby. Government regulation does not preclude small nuclear. In fact a presidential (government) research subsidy is funding one of the most promising small nuclear projects right now

  7. @Dominic

    As for 10 years and government regulation – that is another canard from the fossil fuel lobby. Government regulation does not preclude small nuclear.

    There is a reason we are hoping for Asia to develop new nuclear technology. It is not because the US cannot produce new technology, or has no use for cheap power… It is because you basically cannot build a new nuclear power plant in the US: it is too expensive.

    Let me quote wikipedia:

    Of the 100 reactors now operating in the U.S., ground was broken on all of them in 1977 or earlier.

    At best, the US can update a tiny fraction of its current power plants… building entirely new power plants? It is not in the cards.

    Germany is not less efficient or cost effective than we are, yet they use far more renewable and green energy.

    Let me quote the financial post:

    Indeed, despite the massive investment, solar power accounts for only about 0.3% of Germany’s total energy. This is one of the key reasons why Germans now pay the second-highest price for electricity in the developed world (exceeded only by Denmark, which aims to be the “world wind-energy champion”). Germany’s experiment with subsidizing inefficient solar technology has failed. As even many German officials would probably attest, governments elsewhere cannot afford to repeat the same mistake.

    We could also get into how well Obama’s investments in solar energy turned out. Not well, it turns out.

    It is not to say that renewable energies cannot end up meeting our needs. They might. Just not today. We need more research and experiments, and entrepreneurship.

  8. Sadly, Whether Germany has succeeded or failed seems to depend entirely on the political alignment of the paper you read.

    The range of opinions and even quoted facts is huge. With Fox “news”, and the Murdoch empire, it has become impossible to get at the truth in many cases.

  9. For example “German Energy Agency DENA reports that as of January 2011, around 17% of electricity, 8% of heat and 6% of fuel used in Germany is generated from renewable sources” sounds a lot better than your quote about solar (0.3%) which I believe to be factually wrong (or perhaps measured at night).

    Here is a measurement “Solar and wind provided 36.4 percent of total electricity generation over the entire day with PV accounting for 11.2 percent.”

    As far as the individual costs to consumers, here is another fact “In Germany, electricity now accounts for about 2–2.5% of a person’s budget. Hmm, unbearable, eh? Sure, that is an average, but even for the poorest 10%, the rate is just up to about 4.5%, probably less than the average American.”

    Frankly, the right (including Angela Merkel) have done a great job of demonizing the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz (EEG). The truth is far more nuanced and interesting. What is really sad is the take up of the propaganda by more centrist newspapers.

  10. As for denunciation of nuclear, I notice that several “green” parties are much more nuanced in their nuclear stance than they used to be.

    Even the green party, which is very anti-nuclear, is so on the basis of the cradle to grave cost and emissions – which frankly are appalling on existing facilities and technology. I strongly suspect that smaller plants, and alternate technologies can cross the line into green acceptability – and in fact may be the only way to provide clean base-load power generation.

  11. @Dominic

    Let us say that Germany generates 10% of its electricity from renewable sources (wikipedia says 4.7%). But how much is that in terms of its total energy? Are you telling me that cars, heating, farming and industry in Germany is all electrical?

    Wikipedia disagrees with this belief… Germany is the 6th biggest consumer of oil in the world:

    Germany uses more oil per capita than France… at least it did back in 2010. (This is likely because of Germany’s stronger industry.)

    Anyhow, electricity in Germany costs 3x as much as it does in Canada or the US. It costs nearly 2x as much as it does in France.

  12. Again, I have to disagree with your “facts”. Quoting the electricity wholesale prices, we see that the US pays between $35 and $70 per MWHr. Germany is at $58 (35 Euros). The UK is at over $100. France has (artificially) pegged its price at $57. Ontario’s wholesale price is currently $76/MWHr.

    I am getting all these prices from the respective energy regulators. They are publicly available. What sources are you quoting?

  13. Ok, so right away I see you are using 2011 pricing. Since then, US, Canada, UK and France prices have risen, and Germany’s prices have continued falling (from their high in 2008).

    I am not sure how they arrive at Canada’s price – but certainly Ontario was paying more in 2011, and pays a lot more right now.

    Perhaps they cherry picked Quebec – which has a sweetheart deal with Newfoundland for the Churchill Falls power plant.

    Perhaps the challenge for you is to prove your point using today’s data (which is readily available).

  14. @Dominic

    I have given you two references stating that Germany had the second highest electricity prices in the developed world. The Financial Post and energycollective.

    You can also look at Wikipedia

    You will need to scroll all the way down at the bottom of the page where countries with very high prices are.

    You need more? Fine. It is all over the web.

    Monbiot, the famous leftist and environmentalist is also opposed to what Germany is doing:

    Against my instincts I have come to oppose solar photovoltaic power (PV) (…) because the facts show unequivocally that this is a terrible investment. There are much better ways of spending the rare and precious revenue that the tariffs will extract from our pockets. If we are to prevent runaway climate change, we have to ensure that we get the biggest available bang for our buck: in other words the greatest cut in greenhouse gas production from the money we spend. Money spent on ineffective solutions is not just a waste: it’s also a lost opportunity.

    IEEE warns of an upcoming revolt in Germany over electricity prices:

    Without a change in course, says the government, costs could rise to 40 cents/kWh by 2020. At present-day prices, the average German family of three pays about 90 euros per month for electricity, the equivalent of about US $135—about twice as much as in the year 2000.

    The high rates have been affecting less-advantaged members of society disproportionately, argues Der Spiegel, . “…[R]enewable energy subsidies redistribute money from the poor to the more affluent., as when someone living in a small rental apartment subsidizes a homeowner’s roof-mounted solar panels through his electricity bill.”

    The New York Times had an article on this topic:

    Part of the reason consumer prices have risen so sharply is that, for now, the government has shielded about 700 companies from increased energy costs, to protect their competitive position in the global economy.

    Industrial users still pay substantially more for electricity here than do their counterparts in Britain or France, and almost three times as much as those in the United States

  15. @Dominic

    The Wall Street Journal:

    As Germans rush to grab this easy money, carbon dioxide output has risen, not fallen, because money-strapped utilities have switched to burning cheap American coal to provide the necessary standby power when wind and sun fail.

    Because the sun and wind are intermittent and the power grid is poorly arranged to accommodate them, brownouts and blackouts threaten this winter.

    Because the bills are paid by households and businesses, electricity rates are triple those in the United States. An immediate panic is jobs, as prized industries head to the U.S. for cheaper energy unleashed by the shale revolution. Europe’s top energy official now speaks frankly of the “deindustrialization in Germany.

  16. I get your point regarding the Green Party. I do not consider Greenpeace’s views as having political weight. They may carry some influence, and they have some good points but I don’t think mainstream politics is swayed by Greenpeace very much. And again, although many in the green party are avidly anti-nuclear, the actual manifesto is anti-nuclear based on cost analysis including environmental cost. Not a blind anti-nuclear “belief”.

    Also I take issue with dismissing another’s comment suggesting that we would not have computers etc. if we were unwilling to extract marginal resources. That is again a straw man argument. In countries where energy is twice the price, innovation has still proceeded at a comparable pace. The UK created the first digital watch, the first cheap hand-held calculator, the first consumer ready computer under $100, the Raspberry Pi, the Arm CPU which powers every cell-phone and most portable devices, and has consistently charged at wholesale and retail at least twice the energy costs of North America. Where is Canada’s technology leadership? Should we not have twice the international brand footprint as the UK?

    In fact, one could argue that low relative energy prices deter innovation. Why innovate when brute force is cheap? High energy costs have often forced companies to find power savings, which have often turned out to be better processes all round (and forced retooling, which creates other savings and drives economic activity). Ford motor company is an example – Mullaly turned Ford around in part by discovering power efficiencies in their plants as well as their powertrains.

  17. The articles you quote are all of a piece. They all stem from a single source which they quote blindly. There has been much deconstruction of this mis-information on the web already.

  18. I cannot link my sources in your blog, but for German energy prices, I quote Vincent Gilles of Credit Suisse group here: “Year-ahead electricity prices fell 19 percent to 36.80 euros ($50.30) a megawatt-hour in 2013. The contract closed at 35.90 euros yesterday, its lowest settlement since March 2005, and at 36.15 euros today, according to broker data compiled by Bloomberg. The benchmark will average 36.60 euros in 2014, compared with 39.06 euros last year, the survey showed.” = $49

    For Canada, the IESO (Independent Energy Supply Ontario) quotes electricity cost today at $46.7.

    For the USA, I use the Energy Information Administration (government) for their wholesale prices. The actual market prices do not support your argument – in fact they are at complete odds with everything you have quoted.

    So – what do we believe – the newspapers you quoted, or the opinions of actual analysts and traders and the published market prices?

  19. So you could keep on going, because defunded and otherwise lazy journalism has caused a sensational story implanted by manipulators to trump the truth.

  20. True – one could argue that. However, I do not think it is safe to simply assume that historically higher energy prices would somehow cause us to do without technological amenities today. It might, but I am not so sure of a causal link, especially without some compelling evidence.

  21. @Dominic

    The wholesale price is not what Germans pay. The wholesale price is what it costs to generate electricity using cheap American coal.

    Granted, this price is theoretically what Germans *could* pay (about 7c/kWh). But then, if Germans could buy the cheap wholesale electricity produced with coal, who would buy the fancy solar power? Nobody.

    So that is not the electricity that Germans are buying. They are buying very expensive “renewable” electricity.


    In September, Berliners paid an average of nearly $0.40 per kWh of electricity they purchase from the local power grid.

    To put this in perspective, the highest average electricity price in the continental United States is about $0.18 per kWh in Connecticut, according to the Energy Information Administration.

    Electricity prices in Ontario are ~11c/kWh (

    In Quebec, they are less than 5c/kWh (

    Germany has high electricity prices. Let us assume that the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Post and Wikipedia all got their facts wrong… What about Spiegel? You are not going to tell me that Germans don’t know their own electricity prices?

    German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. But because the government is failing to get the costs of its new energy policy under control, rising prices are already on the horizon. Electricity is becoming a luxury good in Germany, and one of the country’s most important future-oriented projects is acutely at risk.

    The Bloomberg reference you quote is interesting:

    Power prices in Germany, Europe’s biggest electricity market, probably will weaken for a record fourth consecutive year as utilities add the most coal-fired capacity in more than a decade.

    See this part about burning cheap coal?

    This is what is happening in Germany:

    Here’s the truly dismaying part: the latest numbers show Germany’s carbon output and global warming impact are actually increasing despite flat economic output and declining population, because of ill-planned “renewables first” market mechanisms. This regime is paradoxically forcing the growth of dirty coal power. Photovoltaic solar has a fundamental flaw for large-scale generation in the absence of electricity storage — it only works for about 5-10 hours a day. Electricity must be produced at the exact same time it’s used. The more daytime summer solar capacity Germany builds, the more coal power they need for nights and winters as cleaner power sources are forced offline. This happens because excessive daytime solar power production makes base-load nuclear plants impossible to operate, and makes load-following natural gas plants uneconomical to run. Large-scale PV solar power is unmanageable without equally-large-scale grid storage, but even pumped-storage hydroelectricity facilities are being driven out of business by the severe grid fluctuations. They can’t run steadily enough to operate at a profit. Coal is the only non-subsidized power source that doesn’t hemorrhage money now. The result is that utilities must choose between coal, blackouts, or bankruptcy. Which means much more pollution.

  22. @Dominic

    I do not think it is safe to simply assume that historically higher energy prices would somehow cause us to do without technological amenities today.

    I really do think that without fossil fuels we wouldn’t have computers today.

    Let us have some historical perspective.

    What were we using before turning to coal and oil? We were burning wood and using windmill. What was happening to our forests? They were getting wiped out. Forests in Europe were saved by coal. And then, oil saved us from coal.

    We have good evidence that civilizations collapsed partly because they consumed all the nearby wood and used up the land. Coal and oil is what sustained our civilization.

    Would we have had the industrial revolution and the computers that we have today without cheap coal?

    Well. We could have used something beside coal, but the fact is that we do need cheap energy, whatever the source. Maybe we could have skipped coal and oil, and gone from wood directly to nuclear power… but it would have taken a long time… it is hard to build nuclear power plants without steel… and making steel out of wood is expensive…

    So, with this perspective in mind, do we want to turn down cheap power today? Cheap power is what allows us to go forward.

    Without cheap power, we are much more fragile. Maybe we can’t afford to pay people to fly over the arctic just to take pictures of polar bears.

  23. The German wholesale price is the German wholesale price. American coal is not shipped to Germany. American electricity cannot be shipped to Germany.

    The wholesale price is just that – the price that energy distributors would pay on the spot for German electricity.

    What I think you are alluding to is the fact that the “on the bill” price is only partly related to the wholesale energy spot price. That is correct. Consumers may well pay a lot more – indeed we do here in Ontario as well. Here part of the cost is the grid itself, a right-down on un-planned for costs in repairing or decommissioning nuclear and paying more for FIT energy (partially offset by being able to close coal plants).

    However, the main thrust of the Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and other articles, you are quoting is that the price of electricity is somehow making Germany less competitive. I can assure you that factories are not paying the consumer price that Der Spiegel complains about. I would expect that their price is more closely coupled to the wholesale price.

    I also understand your comments about base-load. However, a look at the demand graphs for any country will show that highest demand occurs during the day. For every climate, basic calculations will show roughly how much of your energy you can meet by solar, and for obvious reasons, exceeding that comes with other consequences.

    However, one works with averages, and makes a best overall compromise. On very bright days, one may overproduce, in order to meet expectations on cloudy days.

    I think you will find that a less financial paper-based research trail will produce “cleaner” facts. Which is a real pity, since one might expect that people who care about financial numbers would be more straightforward.

    I am not normally given to paranoia or conspiracy theories, but I am hard pressed to explain the persistence of this story with so many factual errors and outright misleading statements.

    Germany is slated to close up to 8 coal fired power plants this year on the request of the utility companies.

  24. There is no denying the fact that we consume vast amounts of energy. It is equally hard to deny that we could with reasonable ease reduce our energy requirements by as much as 50% with very little actual lifestyle change.

    Such a change would only hurt energy producing companies, and they have lobbied hard against any measure that would cause real energy savings. They have also spent a lot of money trying to sway public opinion against climate change. There is almost no money being spent “to promote a climate change agenda” – because there is really no money to be made doing that. “climate change scientists” are not a lobby, they are mostly underpaid public servants who are being held up to bullying by lobbyists and governments.

    Whether we think we “need” cheap energy or not – the fact is that we cannot actually afford the trouble it is causing. The climate is warming, and along with that, weather events are getting more severe. If you doubt that, ask an insurance actuarial. They are much more likely to give you the truth than an oil exec.

  25. Unlike primitive man, we can keep finding new energy sources. In fact, we have, as you say, historically moved inexorably toward cleaner energy sources. From wood and peat to coal to oil to gas.

    However, we are now up against a paradigm change. Solar and Wind energy are not offering a steady meal ticket to any company. Certainly not on the scale of coal or oil. There are extremely powerful vested interests at play here.

    Of course solar and wind do not solve all our energy problems. However, they can and should be part of the mix – a carefully calculated mix that would minimize the kinds of downsides that Forbes et al gleefully describe. I would also advocate for small scale nuclear, and a full willingness to test new technologies in the process.

    I would say that as a species we are far more adaptable than you think. We can and will discover ways to do more with less, and technology will play a large part in that. We will find ways to use a lot less dirty energy than now, and I don’t think we will sacrifice any standard of living to do so.

    However, we won’t do that unless we accept that it is a good thing to do.

  26. As an example of the kind of disinformation out there – the University of Lancaster once produced a widely quoted study (funded by oil interests) that concluded that trains were far from more efficient than cars. They did this by cleverly relying on public ignorance about math and statistical methods, by comparing cars, buses and trains using median occupancy.

    Now any educated person knows that median is a kind of average – just the centre point in a collection of data. It is not the mean, which is the actual average as understood by most people. And everyone also knows that neither cars nor commuter trains operate with median occupancy. In fact, cars have much less than median occupancy, and commuter trains much more. So the conclusion was fatally flawed even though all the studies numbers may have been correct.

    None of that stopped Fox news, Forbes and others from picking up the story and running with it.

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