Saturday, June 30, 2007


Hecate, the queen of ghosts, is sometimes considered to be Agamemnon's daughter Iphigeneia who was sacrificed to get a favorable wind to invade Troy. This was the seed that eventually led to Agamemnon's murder by his wife Clytemnestra. She was later killed by Iphigeneia's brother Orestes. Out of these stories came the birth of tragedy as a dramatic form. This form, together with comedy have fascinated us ever since. Consideration of Real Energy leads us to to look on the modern devotees of Hecate, the ghost energy necromancers, in a comic light. Their Petroleum Council report on how much more ghost energy they insist we need has been haunting these pages along with the secretive offices of government like bad penny. So, it was with much mirth that the imminence of their report was the occasion for a fairly elaborate joke.

The Yes Men volunteer to give presentations on behalf of corporations that take themselves a little too seriously. The have, for example, announced that Dow Chemical will liquidate Union Carbide to pay for the clean up of the Bhopal disaster. To get the joke, you need to understand that corporations are not allowed to behave ethically or take responsibility for the harm they cause because this could harm the stockholders' financial interests. Corporations, however they may feel, must wait for a legal authority to assign responsibility and they are pretty much required to defend themselves from being assigned that responsibility through legal arguments and political influence or else they fail in their prime fiduciary responsibilities. So, in the case of an unintended accident like that in India or the big oil spill in Alaska, they must make every effort not to accept blame. So, when the Yes Men announced that Dow took full responsibility for the disaster in India, it gave us all a good laugh.

The joke the Yes Men perpetrated in the middle of June was to present a new product on behalf of ExxonMobil called Vivoleum. Vivoleum is a biofuel rendered from human corpses, the supply of which is increased by global warming. They were invited to present before a meeting of oil people in Canada because the group was lusting after news of a report being prepared by the Petroleum Council that is going to say that the outlook for oil is very cheerful, at least this is what I took away from Alan Kelly's presentation in February. So, when a speaker's agency offered the Yes Men volunteers, they were happy to take them, no questions asked.

How far they were able to carry off the joke is pretty amazing. They gave a slide presentation on the new corpse rendered biofuel, and then got attendees to light candles purportedly made from the body of and ExxonMobil worker who volunteered to be sacrificed. Iphigeneia was tricked into her sacrifice by the promise of marriage to the hero Achilles, who, if he knew of this, really was a heel. The meeting began to cotton on when they watched this memorial video for the ExxonMobil worker. After that, the Yes Men were escorted from the building by police officers at the insistence of the meeting organizers.

But, the devotees of Hecate can't seem to laugh off a good joke. The access to the Yes Men's web site was shut down, and only allowed to be restored after ExxonMobil's name was removed. Since there was never going to be any real confusion over the use of their name, one needed to be licking ones chops for the Petroleum Council's report to be taken in to begin with, the use is protected fair use as parody. For Hecate's minions to force the removal of the web site under color of law is very likely to be a crime. But, what more can be expected of this family, so like that of Atreus. May we just hope that Hermione will somehow escape the tangles of fate and emerge from the dark times that drive them to such excess as a purveyor of lubricants rather than fuel.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


Some people think cement is boring and just soldier on anyway. They consider the considerable amount of ghost energy that is used in making cement and try to figure out ways to reduce it. The proposed solution, geopolymeric cement actually has historic, folkloric and even quasi-automotive aspects so it is puzzling why it would be considered dull. Monbiot is single minded in his effort to find ways to reduce carbon dioxide emission while preserving a civilized life. In converting from temperamental Portland cement to more durable geopolymeric cement he finds an 80% reduction in emission.

Owing to natural gas supplies from Russia, Monbiot tends to support the the idea of pumping carbon dioxide into deep saline aquifers to store it in a relatively stable liquid form while still using ghost energy. He runs into difficulty though when considering home heating because he needs two sets of pipes, one to bring in the gas and one to return the carbon dioxide to a central location for liquification. He feels that the timescale for reducing emissions is so short that a complete transition to real energy may not be possible before a 90% reduction in emissions is required. There are actually three sets of pipes connecting a typical British home and it seems to me that Monbiot has overlooked this. One set brings in natural gas, one set brings in water and one set carries water away. If Monbiot is looking for an extra pipe, it seems to me that the last set would work just fine for his purposes. A slight negative pressure would draw flue gas from his boilers and an application of this technology at the egress would condense the carbon dioxide in the manner he desires. With a high carbon dioxide partial pressure in the pipe a couple of other benefits occur. Anoxic bioprocessing of the sewage on the trip through the pipe will produce methane which can be mixed back with the natural gas while the carbonated water is just about perfect for biofuel production using algae and light. In gloomy England, he may want to use wind powered artificial light, but it does get around the land use issues that worry him. Deficiencies in the third set of pipes for this purpose would really be a matter of maintenance to correct rather than new infrastructure so that his timescale could be met.

But, let's not deal further with such spirits and turn to real sequestration using real energy (note to George: Klaus has cost estimates here, drop me a line if you don't have a subscription). In order to counter-act our interference in the geological carbon cycle we need to return carbon to the ground. But, as Lackner points out, there is not really enough room in the ground whence we have summoned the carbon to put it all back. Thus, he considers harvesting metal ions from silicate rocks in order to produce carbonates which can be left exposed on the surface of the Earth for very long periods without risk of the carbon returning to the atmosphere. He would have coal burned at rock quarries (it takes about five or six times the mass of rock to convert the carbon dioxide to carbonates so you bring the carbon to the rock) to produce power without releasing carbon dioxide. Like Monbiot, he still flirts with ghosts. But it seems a little silly to do for ourselves what real energy does for us, and surely the weathering of rock on the continents produces an abundant supply of the metal ions Lackner requires throughout our oceans and estuaries. Calcium ions, together with carbon dioxide are the raw material our of which corals and shellfish form their exoskeletons. Weathering of rock is a real energy process and the growth of these creatures is a real energy process and both are the real geological carbon cycle. Ghost energy is largely an accident that is only significant because it has had such a long time to accumulate. Most carbon sits in carbonates.

How can we participate in this real energy process while also reducing our reliance on Portland cement? This also turns out to be interesting in historic, folkloric and quasi-automotive ways. The only puzzle is: how did we killed our oysters? The answer is that we have overfed them. Historically, the Chesapeake Bay produced about 700,000 tons of oysters each year and since the wet flesh weight is less that 10% of the total weight, most of this was a harvest of calcium carbonate. Folklorically, you could walk across the bay on oyster reefs. And, in a quasi-automotive manner, crushed oyster shells once made permeable driveways near the Bay though now they are used for chicken feed and oyster restoration.

How does the carbon in 700,000 tons of oyster shells compare with the carbon in the 7 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted from home heating in Maryland in 1990? Well carbon is about 12% of the weight of the shells and about 27% of the weight of the gas so
a historic oyster harvest can sequester about 4.4% of a year's worth carbon from home heating. Or, 23 years of harvest can make up for each year we continue to use oil and gas for heating. This is not planting trees! This is permanent sequestration!

What could we do with all those shells? Tabby is a building material made from oyster shells that hearkens back to a day when we didn't use ghost energy. Returning to it's use may make some sense. But to do that, we've got to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Bay (and the Gulf on Mexico) because the anoxic conditions they produce, which might be useful in a sewer pipe (above), kill the oysters, crabs and other sea life that can help us in cleaning up our carbon mess. It is not enough to reduce the amount of carbon used to make nitrogen fertilizer, we also need to manage much more carefully where it ends up when we are done with it.