Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Fracking Gamble

+Gail Tverberg 's theory about the deflationary spiral of oil prices (she thinks we are locked in to a price slide that will bottom out around $20/barrel) also applies to natural gas.  The fact that Chesapeake Energy (the U.S.'s second largest natural gas producer) is headed toward junk status supports this corollary.  A lot of Chesapeake's problem stems from land speculation with the intention of drilling and fracking.  These land deals were conducted with money from bright-eyed investors who never understood the economics of fracking and are now realizing how little real value most of the shale plays held.  Chesapeake's co-founder, Aubrey McClendon, seemed to know when to leave the party, as he departed the company in 2013.

He chose the name for the company out of a liking for the Chesapeake Bay area, despite the company's Oklahoma roots.  From Oklahoma, Chesapeake Energy's gas pipelines grew toward the Chesapeake Bay like a mycelium seeking humid climes to sprout its mushrooms.  After the fracking potential of the Marcellus Shale became known, the company surged further, to Pennsylvania. The pipeline assets were spun off years ago and now belong to Williams.
With the current demise of fracking due to the inability of the market to support the infrastructure and loss of investor interest, many natural gas companies will go under.  The price of natural gas should rise, however, once the markets have sloughed off the non-performing suppliers.  As coal is replaced by natural gas electricity generation, demand for gas should continue to grow.  The long-term damage to prices that Tverberg expects for oil may not apply to natural gas.

While the Chesapeake Bay region may have been the divining rod for Aubrey McClendon's vision of where Chesapeake Energy should go, it is there that he met the greatest opposition over the environmental repercussions of fracking.  Fracking has emboldened the U.S. to rescind laws against oil exporting and to build natural gas export facilities, such as the Cove Point Plant expansion underway a few miles from my home.  Aside from the public outcry against fracking, there are geological limits, climate considerations for which we are now internationally accountable, and the impending economic recession wrought largely by the same commercial ennui that brought about the energy price slump.  Fracking may never come back.  Cove Point may never export any liquefied natural gas.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Future of Mass Transportation

One of Maryland author John Michael Greer's oddities (other than being an archdruid)
is that his preferred mode of intercity transportation is passenger rail.  In fact, he chose his adopted town, Cumberland, MD, partly because of its proximity to a working train station. The motivation for he and his wife's move to this Allegheny rust-belt arts-centric village was that we would soon enough become a more regionally-scaled economy, reverting from a global or national scale.  Underlying that conviction was the view that oil would not be abundantly cheap in the near future, driven by the occurrence of global peak oil. Rail travel would then become relatively more important.

It looks like JMG's move is now going to be validated, as we've arrived at peak oil. Although oil prices are much lower than in recent history, the price drop is driven by falling demand, which, along with a host of other commodities, shows that the world is entering a global recession. The fact that the Federal Reserve raised interest rates this month reduces debt-driven growth, so demand for oil, et. al., will continue to fall. Rather than a result principally of geological shortages of oil, which may have brought about a gradual decline in production, peak oil is instead being driven by incongruous financial behavior wherein increasing debt is no longer sustainable.  The interest rate rise is a signal that there will be a significant drop in worldwide oil production.  That is a synopsis of the view of Gail Tverberg, who, along with JMG spoke to us at the Age of Limits Conference in May 2013.  Ms. Tverberg points out that if there were a low-cost substitute for oil that we could deploy today, the fallout from peak oil could be ameliorated, but that appears to be years away.  Not even solar power appears to be cost-competitive enough yet to avert a premature end of the oil era.

If you haven't ridden a train or bus lately, it would be a good idea to start getting used to it.  Once airlines lose favor due to their excessive costs, shorter trips on these more economical vehicles will become the norm. It might surprise you to find out that trains still serve much of the country.  Besides AMTRAK, Maryland has its own MARC train system.  Unfortunately, due to the impending recession, I don't think Elon Musk will get the chance to speed trains up by turning them into air tube pods.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Don't Wait for the Lifeboats

The Brown- and Green-tech scenarios David Holmgren postulates are only half of the picture.  When you factor in the effects of a rapid decline in worldwide oil production, the scenarios become "Lifeboats" and "Earth Steward," respectively, with Earth Steward being the lesser of four evils. Murphy's law favors the greater of the four evils, especially as we find oil production to be past peak with no viable substitute.  Assuming oil production will decline more rapidly than our ability to power down in a controlled fashion gives us the Lifeboat scenario, where civilization fragments and humans die off by half.  If you think it couldn't get any worse than that, read Revelation or Dante's Inferno or a Cormac McCarthy novel; our capacity for suffering seems almost unlimited.  Yet, it is so troubling to plan for the Lifeboat scenario, much less act on that premise, that we are loath to even consider it.

Holmgren's solution to our predicament is to accelerate the collapse of the capitalistic system that now bewitches us in order to fail into a Green-tech future before a climate tipping point occurs, e.g. melting of arctic tundra permafrost, which would void the possibility of either of the more benign outcomes. Holmgren is Australian, which is far enough removed from our locale to make you think that it might be different for us here.  Maryland author and permaculturist John Michael Greer doesn't think so. His projections for our future are as frightening as Lifeboats.  His solution also mimics Holmgren's - Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush.

Maryland is due to update their own projections of local sea-level rise in early 2016.  I doubt they will include many of the positive feedback effects and climate tipping points that may arise in the years ahead.  This hot December is even making me wonder if we've already encountered one. While we are on high enough ground to not require a real lifeboat, it's a good thing we have access to the Navy base nearby in case we need a metaphorical one.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Climate Refugees

Did you notice the environmental subtext in the latest Star Wars movie contrasting the despoiled, brown desert world with the overgrown blue-green planet where freedom reigns?  It strains credulity to think that life could be sustained as depicted on the desert planet, while the blue-green planet offers a multitude of niches where creatures could luxuriate.  Earth is a mix of these two worlds, but with the desert gaining more ground every year.

Included in the desert are many cityscapes that are denuded of flora, paved over, serving as commons for swarms of seemingly unconcerned occupants.  This has been our direction since the time of Nimrod and the industrial revolution magnified the devastation many times over.  David Holmgren classes the two types of environment as results of brown- and green-tech.

Maryland is on course for more land "development" in the years ahead, but forest canopy cover is required to be a minimum of 40%, meaning we won't end up like the desert planet.  Other parts of our country will, namely the half west of the Mississippi (excluding the Northwest).  We and our neighboring states are sure to be the recipient of millions of internally displaced people (IDP's) coming from those deserted areas.  We will have to show them how to live a green-tech existence, e.g. forest gardening, if they are not to desertify our end of the continent, as well.

Masses of Arabs huddled around an occasional jihadist are yearning to be free of the civil wars in their desert homelands.  How able, not to mention willing, are we to rescue these refugees when there will soon be millions of our own in similar plights?  How about we settle any of these desert-acclimated migrants in the hot, dry West?  Perhaps they can show some Americans how to deal with the desert and when ours can't stand the heat any longer, maybe we will have learned how to accommodate refugees well enough to settle westerners in the florid east.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Pushing back the Invaders

There is something of a tragedy in places where natives are driven into minority status.  Who knows what the waves of climate and resource war migrations will do to Europe in terms of cultural upheaval? The wild kingdom endures its own invasions of animals, plants, and insects, driven, as well, by climate change and human exploitation.  Often, the invasive species can be predatory, as were the settlers vs. the Native Americans and certain Islamic extremists living in the free world.

As a master gardener intern, I've been trained to side with the natives in their fight to possess territory.  This sounds like a convenient simplifying precept until you start asking for native plants at local nurseries.  Browsing through the Native Plant Guide for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, I picked four ground cover plants that I decided to shop for to get the best price from nurseries as far as 50 miles away.  It turned out that price wasn't the issue, since not a single one was available at any of the half dozen nurseries shopped.

It seems that the online shopping option will be the solution to this apparent lack of conservation consciousness.  If I don't want to buy in quantities of 25 or greater from the Maryland Online Nursery, I can still buy numerous native species at Izel Plants, the of native plants.  Izel (meaning "unique" in a Native American language), is a clearinghouse for nurseries specializing in native plants.  Prices appear to be relatively low, and include quantity discounts.  The mid-Atlantic region is their strongest sector.

Should neither of these sources carry the plants I want, there are other listings yet to be explored.  As mentioned earlier, the local annual Master Gardener plant sale is a real good shopping opportunity, as well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fruits and Nuts

The forest garden I intend to plant will consist of 25 black walnut trees and several compatible species.  That limits the field to only a few species which don't seem to mind the juglone (5-hydroxy-alphanapthaquinone) that black walnut roots secrete.  A recommended native plant guild for black walnut* from Maryland permaculturist Michael Judd consists of:

  • Goumi bush - producing a juicy, red berry in June (use 2 varieties; won't tolerate wet soil)
  • Persimmon* - delicious Diospyros (Food of the Gods) virginiana (requires full sun; dioecious {requires a male tree}; half the height of black walnut)
  • Paw paw - custard cream tropical fruit for making smoothies (full sun best; half the height of persimmon)
  • Mulberry - exotic berry flavor (tolerates shade; a bit larger than paw paw tree)
  • Currants - tart to sweet from black to pink nutritious berries (a shrub that grows well next to trees)
  • Black raspberry - (not out-of-control like blackberries)
  • Alpine strawberry - smaller fruit than commercial varieties (ground cover)
  • Elderberry* - small, juicy fruit in June/July (likes wet soil, so double up the biochar; to 12')
  • Goldenseal - flowery (medicinal) herb
Available cheap through the Maryland online nursery.  Plant one in every patch.

If there is any room left over in some of these patches, other plants might be considered for inclusion. Everything else should be planted 50 feet or more away from the black walnut to prevent juglone poisoning, which means all these patches have to be well away from my existing plantings.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Candy Store

Speaking of treasure troves, stumbling across the new Maryland online nursery has opened up a glorious new chapter in my forest gardening efforts.  Whereas, formerly, the only affordable and accessible source for me to buy native plants was the annual Master Gardener plant sale in Prince Frederick, where I would have to pay at least double the online nursery price, plants are now available online throughout the growing season and early orders are possible.  A minimum order of 25 plants is required and a minimum shipping charge of $20 applies to each order ($30 if your state doesn't adjoin Maryland).  Considering that retail nurseries charge over $150 for a young tree, and you could get 150 seedlings at this website for that price, it's a huge bargain.

This outlet is not for commercial resellers.  As the DNR website stipulates:

"Landowners who purchase seedlings from the John S. Ayton Nursery agree to:
  • Provide a planting report upon department request
  • Protect plantings as much as possible from fires, grazing animals and trespassers
  • Keep live, rooted trees in place (trees with roots attached may not be uprooted for sale as live or ornamental trees)"

If you are on the Eastern shore and want to see the farm with over 3 million seedlings, their address is:

John S. Ayton State Tree Nursery
3424 Gallagher Road
Preston, MD 21655,

(a place sure to appeal to at least one of my loyal readers ; )

Rather than rush into ordering, my focus will first be on establishing food forest patches where the seedlings can be planted throughout my property.  This process of sheet mulching requires a year for wood chips and leaves to break down before planting can begin.  My goal is at least 25 patches on my property ready for planting by 2018. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Please Don't Feed the Algae

Global warming isn't the primary cause of all environmental problems, but it still plays a hand in most.  Take the Upper Middle River outside of Baltimore where, last month, 200,000 fish were suffocated by an algae bloom that led to anaerobic conditions in the water.  The algae bloomed from a combination of warm temperature and an over-abundance of nutrients in the water.  When the weather cooled, the algae died, decaying through a chain of microbial feeding frenzies that consumed dissolved oxygen and released toxins damaging fishes' gills.  Dead fish compounded the effect of dead algae. Not to say that we will suffocate from all of the die-offs occurring around us (though the oxygen concentration in our air is falling), but this is an example of how the fate of a lesser ecosystem occupant can dramatically affect higher species.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has not identified any single pollution source as the trigger for the algae bloom, but leaves open the possibility that an accumulation of nutrients (read "fertilizer") could be to blame. It will be poetic justice when, in the coming decades, the rising seas reclaim the land surrounding this Chesapeake Bay tributary away from homeowners who prized their lawns while poisoning more sentient creatures.

Yet, if cumulative small trespasses can lead to ecological disasters, abundantly small acts of stewardship may also mitigate others.  If you have forested land anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Forests for the Bay is a resource treasure trove that can help you care for it.  It takes only a 1 minute free sign up process to open up the treasure house.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Insanity Checks

Now that the COP-21 Paris climate confab has devolved into muddling over short-term economic privilege instead of the physical threat of global warming, let's see how this sharpens our focus of future first-order impacts nearer to home.  Taking at face value the effects listed in the draft 2015 Maryland Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act Plan, we can assume that the worst case is now the most likely within most of our lifetimes, since Maryland's and most other parties' minuscule contributions to the solution will be of little consequence against the outpouring of fossil fuel and peat gas emissions arising from the Far and Middle East.  Here are aspects of Maryland's inescapable future environment and some checks on future decisions that could prove insane if we follow our usual course.

  1. Sea Level Rise over 4 feet: The U.S. Navy has new port real estate at the Solomons Recreation Center in lieu of the industrial area.  Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy can make it to their seamanship classes only if they can skillfully navigate a boat through the canals leading to Luce Hall.  All over the shoreline, beaches have become cliffs and cliffs have become beaches. The value of waterfront property declines precipitously.  Implications for infrastructure: question any decisions involving new development near the Bay.
  2. North and South Polar Ice Melts: Solomons Island is now an island, indeed.  The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory has a 360-degree view of their subject matter.  Your fortunate friends who once gazed from their patios at the water are now unfortunate (former) friends who now envy your choice of more insular habitat.  The Cove Point Community that once stood up to Dominion Power must now flee King Neptune.  Broomes Island is swept away.  The 231 bridge to Benedict is gone.  The Atlantic Test Range Facilities are put to the ultimate Atlantic test. The U.S. Naval Academy holds all training now in lifeboats.  Both Baltimore and Washington, DC have soggy bottoms, but nothing in comparison to Norfolk, VA.  The U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet is nearly defunct. Implications for infrastructure: don't tear down any upland facilities of sound construction, as possible substitutes for those washed out to sea.
  3. Heavy Precipitation Events: Occasional flooding of streams and rivers endangers properties situated thereon, devaluing them, as well. Untreated sewage pours into rivers and bays, making parts of the region resemble scenes out of India.  Implications for infrastructure: higher ground is more valuable real estate, but rainwater catchment becomes critical.
  4. Heat Waves: Maryland is the lazy South. It's slow down or die from heat stroke. Traditional crops fail from daytime heat and lack of cool nights. Biochar saves the day for those with the foresight to deploy it early. Meat is a luxury as livestock are ever more difficult to sustain. Implications for infrastructure: Make solar power a priority, especially where large air conditioning demand exists.  Value trees that shade your roof. Use biochar in your garden or farm.
  5. Ecosystems shifting: Changes in climate are too extreme for many species to adapt, causing imbalances to established equilibria, leading to species extinctions, causing loss of biodiversity, spiraling into devastation of ecosystems.  Ecosystem services are no longer available.  Life suffers. Implications for infrastructure:  forests and forest gardens, linked by corridors, can prop up some of the hardier species to maintain adequate ecosystems that may resurge once the human population is sufficiently extinguished due to its own folly.
  6. Increases in pests: Winter, which often eradicates insect and microbe pests, is now mild allowing pestilence to gain strength earlier in the growing season, reducing agricultural yields. Implications for agriculture: Disease resistance and crop diversity is more important in seed selection and propagation.  Mono-cropping big ag has to give way to small-holders who are allowed to save seed.  This is a reversal from current trends in Maryland.
  7. Ocean Acidification: Crustaceans cannot grow their shells. Food chains are disrupted. Implications for Maryland: pick a new state symbol.  Crabs will be a relic (except the softshell variety).  Any sea life is probably not a good choice.
You can see it all as just weather, and say that the rain falls on the just and the unjust equally, or you can see it as Noah did and start doing something to try to save your family, or perhaps even your community, state or region.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Keep the Home Fires Burning

Most analyses of the greenhouse gas emissions problem hold the precept that we cannot quickly reduce our use of energy.  Hence, the introduction of technology to displace fossil fuel usage with more sustainable sources must serve as a substitute source of energy.  Oftentimes, the substitute is nearly as polluting as the original, or of dubious marginal value since it is difficult to estimate emissions from all potential sources.

Likewise, it is difficult to estimate the contribution of ecosystems to CO2 reduction.  This is why biochar is struggling to be recognized as an important, if small, part of the solution to the problem of global warming.  Biochar is made with little, if any, production of useful energy compared to incineration of biomass, which produces little, if any, biochar.  This is why the National Academy of Sciences gave biochar such short shrift in their recent study of carbon sequestration approaches. Maryland, unfortunately, adopted this study as the basis for sequestration in their climate action plan.

In order to embrace biochar, you have to allow for the possibility that satisfaction can come through many avenues.  Power may not be any more satisfying than assurance of abundant harvests along with restoration of biodiversity and soil health.  Electricity to power an ever more computerized lifestyle may be less satisfying to millions than lungs working to be filled with fresh air, while growing crops to fuel muscles demanding a more intrinsic energy source.

Energy is more fungible than biochar, but not as much as you might think.  Biochar's uses continue to expand beyond even the 55 identified by Ithaka Institute in 2013.  How can such a useful resource be overlooked, simply because it is not a significant source of energy?

Yet, were the world economy to break down today and trade in fossil fuels slow to a trickle, what would many people resort to?  Ubiquitous small outdoor fires for cooking and cleaning would turn into a climate and ecological disaster.  There are better ways to apply current technology to burning of wood. Coupling these with the production of biochar will help insulate us from climate change, peak oil, and financial folly.

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