Jan 192009

On Saturday I headed out on the Sea Bass to dive some oil rigs just off the coast of LA. The first dive was on the Elly oil rig. Visibility was a solid 50 feet until the end of the dive near the water pipes. There were lots and lots of playful sea lions of all sizes. A few came down to visit us on the super structure at about 80 feet, blowing bubbles and barking. After that they left us alone for while and we explored the mass of life growing on the supports. At 30 feet a large group came to visit us, and playfully looped around us while blowing bubbles.

The next dive was on the Ellen oil rig. The visibility had dropped to about 25 feet and it was fairly dark under the structure, but it was still fun to explore the structure. The currents had really picked up when we were doing our safety stop – a steady swim was needed to keep place. There weren’t as many sea lions on this dive, but it was probably that they were bored with us finally. There was a third dive scheduled on the Eureka rig, but my ear was giving me trouble so I had to bail out.

It was a gorgeous sunny day with barely a ripple on the water. The boat staff and the other divers (especially my insta-buddies Heather and Harry) were friendly and knew what they were doing. Waking up at 4 in the morning to drive to LA isn’t my favorite activity, but the reward was well worth it.

Heather posted a video that gives a pretty good idea of what it is like to be in the middle of a sea lion play time – a lot of fun. I’m in the video a couple times, rolling on my side and making strange chicken wing movements. As much as I love the chicken dance, I’m actually trying to vent some stubborn air from my drysuit. Enjoy:

Jun 222008

Off shore oil rigs stretch from Long Beach to Santa Maria on the coast of California. Some are decommissioned, but most are still in active operation. These rigs are in deep water; their support structures rise from depths of 600 feet. These pillars and cross beams act as an open water oasis – a home for reef & wall critters, and a resting/feeding stop for open ocean species. These rigs are also no-take zones, which mean there is no fishing or harvesting allowed near them.

Some of these rigs allow dive boats to bring out scuba divers to explore the bits of life that now call the support structure home. The Eureka Oil Rig off the coast of Long Beach is one of those rigs. I signed on with three other divers to explore the rig and then chum for sharks in the Avalon Channel with the Psalty V out of San Pedro.

We were lucky and caught 60 foot visibility on the rig that morning. Sea lions barked from the catwalks above, but didn’t get in the water to play. The supports are covered in anemones, scallops, and invertebrates. In parts the supports are at angles, in other parts, vertical in groups, like Greek columns. Reef fish like sheephead, calico bass, and garibaldi buzzed around us as we explored. In open ocean away from the structure I found several types of salp – barrel shaped filter feeders. It was a gorgeous dive.

Next up we chummed for several hours in hopes of finding some blue or mako sharks in the channel. Unfortunately, nothing showed up. Another unfortunate indication that shark populations are decimated. It used to be a sure thing to find sharks in the channel, now sightings are very rare. With time and proper legislation and enforcement, some day it may be a sure thing again.

May 232008

Some people (like the US House) seem to not understand how oil prices are calculated. Luckily, Marketplace has a great introduction to the subject called “Who’s getting fat on higher oil prices?

Economist Philip Verleger watches the oil industry. He says the ultimate price is decided by traders in New York, London and other global markets. There are no wellheads that read out in dollar signs. Instead, producers write contracts based the prevailing price at a future date — when a Saudi shipment arrives in Houston, for example. The producer gets almost everything.

It’s the sweeter variety that’s in high demand right now, because it makes more of the more profitable diesel fuel. Verleger argues that $133-a-barrel oil won’t sell if there’s no buyer.

It has nothing to do with speculators. It has everything to do with the inability to make enough diesel fuel to meet the European, Chinese, Asian and U.S. demand.

Oil is was the lifeblood of the 20th century, and continues to be lifeblood in the 21st century. The market place is a whole lot more crowded though.

Oil is not cheap.

Oil is not expensive.

Oil is worth exactly what someone will pay for it.

Oct 302007

Jim Kunstler’s latest post is typically inflammatory, but definitely makes for some good reading:

The price of oil is up 53 percent over a year ago, creeping up now toward the mid-$90-range. The news media is still AWOL on the subject. (The New York Times has nothing about it on today’s front page.) The dollar is losing a penny a week against the Euro. In essence, the American standard of living is dropping like a sash weight. So far, a stunned public is stumbling into impoverishment drunk on Britney Spears video clips.

Though I would argue that a significant chunk of the price rise is based on the thrashing of the US dollar, it certainly does and will have plenty of other pressures.

The political assumptions one hears are the most astoundingly naïve and ridiculous, especially the ones that involve other countries and our relations with them. NY Times followers no doubt believe, along with Tom Friedman, that the global economy is now a permanent fixture of the human condition, and that soon it will transform itself into a colossal engine of “green” (i.e. benign) commerce. Friedman and his followers tend to forget the second law of thermodynamics when spinning their fantasies of a world that can harmlessly manufacture and market an endless number of plastic salad shooters from one side of the planet to the other without incurring any losses to the health of said planet.

Very true, a flat world depends on cheap oil to remove the impact of market distances, and place the focus on labor costs instead. Such a low cost of transport has negative effects.

My own assumptions are somewhat different. I think we’re likely to see a lot of nations scrambling for survival, initially manifesting in a contest for the world’s dwindling supply of oil (and oil-like substances). For instance, when viewing the globe, few people consider that Japan currently imports 95 percent of its fossil fuel. Japan has been a “good boy” among nations since its episode of “acting out” in the mid-20th century and has enjoyed a long industrial prosperity since then. But what happens when there is not enough oil in the world to be allocated rationally by markets among the powerful nations?

The severity of the response of course depends on the speed and impact once demand passes supply. But even best case scenarios, where prices gradually keep rising, will have some major consequences for the world stage. There is no deus ex machina in the real world to change our dependencies and assumptions over night.

Oct 182007

As anyone who has driven through OC to the California central coast knows, there are lot of offshore oil rigs out there. The UT has a great article on the debate over what to do about the California oil rigs once their life span is up. Some want them dismantled, but as the article shows, they currently support a huge amount of life – the support structures essentially act as artificial reefs.

Among their proposals: Cutting down platforms 80 feet or more below the sea’s surface so that ships can safely pass over the remaining structure, or simply toppling whole platforms onto the ocean bed.

These options, say proponents, would preserve at least portions of the platforms as artificial reefs for fish and other marine life. Indeed, CARE estimates that the 27 Southern California platforms provide 4.1 million square feet of living space for marine invertebrates, such as mussels, barnacles, anemones, scallops, sponges, corals and crabs.

As for fish, several surveys in recent years have found that some of the platforms attract greater numbers and varieties of fish at times than do nearby natural reefs.

Assuming there were minimal heavy metal issues, I’d vote for keeping them around. Our oceans need all the help they can get, and these artificial reefs are great nurseries. They would probably be great spots for diving as well, in better shape than San Diego’s NOS tower.

Aug 032007

RollingStone has a great article called Ethanol Scam: Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles. If you aren’t familiar with the subject, this article is a great introduction.

This is not just hype — it’s dangerous, delusional bullshit. Ethanol doesn’t burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption — yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World….

…Corn is already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51 billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 — twice as much as wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as much as $1.38 per gallon — about half of ethanol’s wholesale market price….

…ethanol made from sugar cane has an energy balance of 8-to-1 — that is, when you add up the fossil fuels used to irrigate, fertilize, grow, transport and refine sugar cane into ethanol, the energy output is eight times higher than the energy inputs. That’s a better deal than gasoline, which has an energy balance of 5-to-1. In contrast, the energy balance of corn ethanol is only 1.3-to-1 – making it practically worthless as an energy source.”

Bonus link: CBC On the Map Ethanol: Green Hope?

Feb 012006

So Bush has finally admitted the US is addicted to cheap oil. He made some statements in his address to the nation:

– Coal. $281 million to develop clean coal technologies “to generate electricity while meeting environmental regulations at low cost.” And $54 million for a “FutureGen” project with the private sector to seek “an emissions-free coal plant that captures the carbon dioxide it produces and stores it in deep geologic formations.”
– Solar power. $148 million, more than double what was sought in 2006, “to accelerate the development of semiconductor materials that convert sunlight directly to electricity.”
– Wind power. $44 million for wind energy research — a $5 million increase over Bush’s 2006 request.
– Ethanol. $150 million, a $59 million increase over 2006, to find a more efficient way to make ethanol, the gasoline alternative now made primarily from corn in the United States. The focus is to use plant fiber from farms that is currently discarded as waste. “Research scientists say that accelerating research into “cellulosic ethanol” can make it cost-competitive by 2012, offering the potential to displace up to 30 percent of the nation’s current fuel use,” the White House said.
– Plug-in hybrids. $30 million, a $7 million increase over 2006, to develop higher capacity batteries for hybrids as well as “plug-in” hybrids that would allow drivers to charge vehicles and run on electric power only. “These vehicles will enable drivers to meet most of their urban commuting needs with virtually no gasoline use,” the White House said.
– Hydrogen. $289 million, a $53 million increase over 2006, to develop fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen “with no pollution or greenhouse gases.” Bush in 2003 launched a $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative and the White House said that “through the president’s program, the cost of a hydrogen fuel cell has been cut by more than 50 percent in just four years.”

From The Oil Drum

I found it interesting that the cheapest, and easiest method to reduce our dependence on oil was not even mentioned. Efficiency. We should be pushing for much higher efficiency standards for cars, appliances, and buildings. But of the points he mentions, I’m seeing some problems:

1) Clean burning coal would be nice, but ultimately we are still looking at a finite resource, with a cost peak (2nd half of the production curve becomes dramatically more expensive). This is just a stop-gap.

2 & 3) The increase in funding for wind and solar is a good start, but a drop in the bucket for what it should be. Bush’s Mars Plans are hundreds of billions of dollars, yet we are spending less than a billion on working to change our country’s energy source? Does that make sense? It remains to be seen if we can actually produce these technologies en mass (solar in particular) with out using the cheap energy and resources of oil.

4) Ethanol has some issues for mass use, without cheap oil. At least Bush seems to be pushing biomass vs. the dubious energy return of just corn. But on a whole, commercial farming requires massive amounts of oil for fertilizer and equipment. I’m wondering how long fields will remain productive if you remove all the plant material each harvest. My guess, not very long without fertilizer.

5 & 6) Plug-in hybrids and hydrogen don’t do anything to change our needs for cheap energy. These are just delivery methods for energy.

Why the sudden interest in alternative energy? It just might be that Bush actually read a report. Authored by Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling and titled The Peaking of World Oil production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management, the report is an assessment requested by the US Department of Energy (DoE), National Energy Technology Laboratory. A bit technical for the average reader, but it is still worth looking at (PDF, HTML). Bonus: Audio interview with Robert Hirsch

Wondering what the hell Peak Oil is? Energy Bulletin has a great primer. You will just ride your bike? Well, it is a bigger issue than just your car. Oil is more energy dense than its competitors, and that is without counting its other uses.

Bonus links:

– Ready for $262/barrel oil? Soros and other investors say oil will be in short supply in the coming months.

Carlsbad based start-up says it is planning for a 330 MPG hybrid for under $20,000. It sounds like the supercar from Amory Lovins.

Sep 132005

– This really sucks – Million Solar Roofs Bill Dies in California Assembly – This bill had bi-partisan support until Assembly Democrats added union-sponsored amendments, including a provision that requires the payment of “prevailing wage” — in effect, union scale — on commercial and industrial solar installations. In essence, the democrats poison-pilled the bill to prevent Schwarzenegger from being successful on a popular environmental issue. I can not express how disappointing this is, and how lame the democrats look because of it. Prevailing wage is fine and dandy, but it should not be tackled in an environmental bill. More info here (note National Council for Solar Growth has moved to https://evergreensolar.com).

– For energy-hungry Asian governments, renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal power is gaining ever greater credence as a way to curb the region’s appetite for oil and cut runaway import bills.

– With gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon and consumers searching for relief, what’s the smartest thing the government could do? Make sure the prices stay at least that high, say some economists. High prices could boost conservation and diminish the country’s oil thirst. Why now? The economy still is expanding, and consumers already have confronted the shock of $3-a-gallon gasoline. Unfortunately, high gas prices hit the poor the hardest. But I still think we need to tackle our addiction head-on, and give alternatives a fighting chance in the market. We need better public transit, to eat local, and to be more efficient in our use of oil.

– The always provocative Kunstler ties in his (often worst case) theories on sprawl and US energy use with the rebuilding of New Orleans.

“…The dirty secret of the American economy for at least a decade now is that it has come to be based on the creation of suburban sprawl and the activities associated with it — the building of cul-de-sac McMansions, highway retail pods, car sales, real estate sales, the creation of false liquidity in the form of easy mortgages and the deployment of that debt into tradable instruments. The sprawl-building industry comprises over 40 percent of what we do in this country. If you subtract it from the U.S. economy, there isn’t much left besides hair cutting and open heart surgery… Of course, any rebuilding would depend on a major engineering effort to raise the ground level in these neighborhoods. That, in turn, depends on whether whole neighborhoods are deemed to be “scrape offs,” since such a project could not be done in piecemeal fashion. Finally, we would be faced with the economic paradox that new construction tends not to fall into the “affordable housing” category, and those displaced might not be able to acquire new houses to replace the ones they lost in the places where they stood. It’s too early to tell what will become of New Orleans’ downtown core of skyscrapers and megastructures…”