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The Aspen Times: Does humanity’s future include a ‘very large extinction spasm’?: Expert suggests that might be the case if things don’t change

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
March 30, 2008

ASPEN — Some scientists say the Earth is headed for “a very large extinction spasm” if current trends continue, moderator Michael Totten told a panel of experts at the Aspen Environment Forum on Saturday.

That prediction, he said, is based on estimates of how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will be pumped into the atmosphere in the coming decades, and the level at which the scientists believe the animal and plant life on Earth will begin to die off in massive numbers.

Totten, an expert in environmental leadership in business, was moderator for a panel discussion entitled, “Environment and Security.” His statements were a preamble to a chat among panelists Gail Norton of Shell Oil, Robert Williams of Princeton University, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and Andy Karsner of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Totten said scientists have estimated that earlier “extinction spasms” on Earth — at least three periods in which large percentages of life on the planet went extinct — corresponded with carbon dioxide levels of around 990 parts per million, most of it from volcanic activity.

As human activities pour carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into today’s atmosphere, he said, some scientists believe we might get to that deadly level again within the next century.

If so, he said, research shows that “we’re looking at a very large extinction spasm,” which some say might be on a scale larger than any before.

Totten’s question to the panel members was whether they could envision a way to balance legitimate energy security concerns with pressing issues of global economic fairness and equally legitimate worries about the environment, and still prevent the accumulation of fatal amounts of CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere as the world’s economy spins along on its oil-based axis.

The question never was completely answered, although each panelist had his or her ideas about how best to approach the matter.

“That’s our mission,” said Karsner, referring to the Applied Science division of the Department of Energy, which he said is charged with encouraging research and development into all aspects of energy use except for nuclear and oil-based technologies.

“Our mission is to design that vision,” he said of Totten’s scenario, explaining that while his agency does not actually do the research, it acts as a “pipeline” for federal enticements, regulations and strategizing to make sure the research gets done.

His job, he said, is to find “the silver buckshot, instead of the silver bullet,” a reference to the oft-stated conclusion that there is no single answer to the world’s energy-related problems.

Lovins, who founded RMI more than a quarter of a century ago largely based on his belief that increased efficiency is the most important part of the broader answer, repeatedly voiced that idea throughout the hour-long discussion.

For example, he said at one point, a hybrid car such as a Prius can be built out of super-light and super-strong materials, resulting in consumption rates a quarter of the those now seen in most cars, or perhaps less. The savings in oil consumption, he said, and the cost of engineering and attaining those savings could be done for a price tag far lower than experiments with biomass [the use of plants to create fuel], oil shale and tar sands, or other technologies for coming up with more fuel to burn.

Others, though, had their own ideas.

Norton, while maintaining that increased energy efficiency is on Shell’s to-do list, said he company also is involved in a range of other research areas. Those include, she said, everything from renewable energy technology to the development of oil shale and tar sands — two “unconventional oil” technologies that she works on.

But others at the conference, including Lovins, have expressed skepticism about oil
shale, which involves extracting an oil-like substance, called kerogen, that is locked in deep rock formations that are most prevalent in western Colorado.

Because kerogen must be heated to yield a liquid that can be refined into fuel, Shell is now exploring the idea of sinking heaters into the ground to warm the kerogen in place, then collect it somehow for refining. At the same time, Shell is looking into ways to “freeze” the land surrounding the in-situ heating process to prevent kerogen from seeping into groundwater aquifers.

All of this is predicted to take unprecedented amounts of water and electricity, and skeptics wonder if it can be done profitably, as well as in an environmentally safe manner.

Norton said Shell is doing the research and development in order to answer those questions and others, and to gain valuable information about the technologies involved.

In the meantime, she said, there still are untapped reserves in the world, although most of those are held by national governments who have been showing signs of “energy nationalism” and unfriendly feelings toward the U.S.

Still, she said, “I don’t think we can afford to say hydrocarbons [oil and coal, mainly] are finished.” She and others have said this weekend that, at the least, there will be a “transition” phase during which the world will begin weaning itself from oil and turning to other energy sources.

One concept that got considerable attention at the forum was “carbon capture and storage,” the idea of capturing greenhouse gases as they are emitted from power plants, whether they burn oil, coal or the compounds created through coal gasification.

Williams said that while coal gasification leads to higher CO2 releases than either coal or oil alone, it is in a “pure stream” that can be captured at the smokestacks and stored, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere.

In the end, the balance of security concerns with environmental sensitivities was not directly discussed in much detail.

Lovins suggested phasing out vulnerable energy-related facilities around the U.S. and other regions, and improving the entire energy infrastructure’s resilience against large-scale failure because of a terrorist attack, mostly by moving to diverse energy resources and spreading out the generation and transmission facilities over a wider area than is now the case.

But the greatest security would come, he said, from increased efficiency that yields decreased reliance on the globe’s shaky oil supply. For example, he said, the WalMart retail chain is in the process of doubling the mileage of its truck fleet, which will save money and conserve oil for other uses.

He suggested that oil companies get involved in “demand side” efficiency efforts, such as promoting car-share programs and mass transit in urban areas, which would mean a reduced need for oil.

Williams said the government needs to step in and lead the way to better energy decisions in general. He said was the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act created as set of alternative energy guidelines that are likely not to be met, and that the government should allow the free market to dictate the methods and pace of conversion from oil to other fuels.

Totten agreed that the 2007 act led to unintended problems, such as the use of engendered trees to make biodegradable diesel fuel that has to be shipped from overseas production centers to the U.S.

The panel generally agreed that it would be helpful if the world’s governments eliminated the quarter-trillion dollars in energy subsidies each year, which Karsner said is heavily biased toward the oil industry and stifles innovative research into alternative ideas.

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http://www.aspentimes.com/article/20080330/NEWS/595158978

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