As resources fail

The article by Henry Liu that ran in Asia Times contained an unknowing comment on how times change. He said
A fourth discontinuity is pending over Iran's march toward nuclear power status. As a major oil producer, Iran needs nuclear power for civilian use as much as coal-producing Newcastle needs oil.
Well it should be noted that Newcastle no longer produces coal, and has not for some years now. The last remaining coal mine in the North of England (where Newcastle lies) was closed earlier this year when it was decided that the cost of pumping the mine dry was not justified by the coal that might be produced. And in that vein we have previously commented on the realities of oil production in Iran, where the need for energy can quite likely justify their desire to have nuclear power. Times change, resources die, and the old sayings become meaningless in the new reality.

In which regard, and to finish the thought on people resources, there was an interesting article in this month's Prism, which is the journal of the American Society for Engineering Education, concerning the need for Mining Engineers. There are now only 13 accredited programs in Mining, and collectively they produced some 85 BS degrees in 2004. Average starting salaries are around $55,000 (but are likely behind those of starting petroleum engineers). Not to flog a dead horse, but, without knowledgeable engineers, finding solutions to ways that improve the mining or oilwell production of fuel is going to be rather difficult. The mining industry conservatively believes that it will need some 300 engineers each year for the next decade, just to replace those retiring. (As a point of reference back in 1981 some 700 students graduated in Mining across the country). As J has pointed out, it takes a number of years of training before a graduate really becomes useful, and right now that well is running very low.

Following along on that thought, with only a handful of coal mines left in the entire United Kingdom, and a similar situation in most of Europe, the chance of coal playing any significant role in solving their coming fuel shortage is not great. Since in many cases the shafts were filled in, and the mines allowed to flood it will take a tremendous effort in money and time to re-establish the industry. Without coal, oil or gas it could get quite chilly in future winters over there, as the Gulf Stream slowly fades. Their plans only call for a 10% contribution from renewable energy by 2010, and that may well now not be enough.
(and this sadly is not a movie script).

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Will the Gulf Stream "slowly fade" or will it just stop?

(Any climate scientists reading feel free to speak up now .... )

The first time I read about the possibility of the Gulf Stream shutting down, the hypothesis would be that a very warm northern summer would release a pulse of melted glacier water (fresh water) that would flow into the North Atlantic and shut down the thermohaline circulation. This to me sounds like a catastrophe that unfolds pretty much all at once rather than over a number of years or decades.

Looking forward to any thoughts on this ...

Excellent Blog...I'm linking it...I've been going on for years now how North America is drunk on when China becomes the materialists we are now, the earth will radically be altered...thanx for being a conscientious canary in the proverbial coal mine.

There is an ice shelf that would melt every summer and drive cold water down to the bottom of the Atlantic and help power the Gulf Stream - for the last few years the ice shelf has not formed in the winter, and thus this part of "the engine" has already shut down. J has also posted that the Gulf Stream is moving.

Interesting article from Ferdinand E. Banks "Economic Theory and Some Oil Market Realities"

"Professor Douglas Reynolds has examined the realities of Canadian tar sands in the latest issue of the OPEC Review (2005). As he makes clear, “Physics, economics and engineering management all point to one thing – oil sand is not the same as crude oil. By defining oil sand bitumen as proven reserved of crude oil, we are setting up the oil and energy markets for a large price spike – a shock.” A version of this comment could probably be applied to the heavy oil of Venezuela, along with a reminder that from a thermodynamic point of view, both heavy oil and oil from tar sands do not have a great deal to offer.

Another important issue in these matters concerns attracting investment dollars to non-profitable undertakings, which is something that I touched on in my energy economics textbook (2000) and several recent papers, but which apparently was not appreciated by a number of influential readers. However Professor Maureen S. Crandall of the United States National Defense University, in a discussion of the huge resources that ostensibly will be made available by extensive exploitation of the Caspian region (2005), makes the following unwelcome observation: “But this producing region as a whole, while accounting for billions of dollars in investments, is unlikely to be a large and sustained future producer and contributor to the world’s energy supplies, and cannot be considered of strategic energy importance to the US.”

The same judgement applies to other ‘oil producing regions of great promise’, but it is best at this time to sum up the situation introduced above with a quote from Craig Bond Hatfield (1997). “The coming era of permanent decline in oil-production rate and the economic and social implications of this phenomenon demand serious planning by the world’s governments.” This decline is not certain, but it might be useful to remember that the major part of today’s oil production – at least 70% – comes from deposits discovered before 1970. This is hardly worth pondering, given that global oil discovery peaked about 1965. Similarly, rumors have started making the rounds that the relatively new discoveries in Russia and West Africa may not live up to expectations."

For a really deep view of the whole gulf stream/thermohaline conveyor thing, see:

(The copius comments after the article are especially interesting.)

To say that it's not a cut-and-dried situation would be a distinct understatement; when you get out onto the bleeding edge of science, as this topic is, there's enough guessing and qualification of views to make even an economist nervous.

"there's enough guessing and qualification of views to make even an economist nervous."

Is reaching that point possible? :)

Where I live in Oregon, all of our utilities are publicly owned--a public (common) good--as are our emergency services and ODOT. (Imagine that, socialism!) We even have an educational system that teaches the skills needed to perform their array of jobs. It is this system of local reliance that the neoliberals want to overturn and privatize for their sole profit. Yet it is this system that forms the basis for vibrant localism. Even people who voted for Bush here acknowledge that. (Of course, most Democrats aren't much better.) This foundation makes it easier to talk about and plan for the coming paradigm shift. If your community doesn't have local control over its local resource base and support services, then that's the very first thing to strive for. There are too many examples of private companies letting the infrastructure they "bought" rot while raising rates, milking the public until service deteriorated, then "demanding" higher rates to somewhat restore the previous level of service, and walking away if the new rates weren't "agreed" upon.

I don't know if you guys followed it, but I linked to 123energy yesterday in a comment. What I was also intrigued by on that site is what is happening with uranium - we have a resource problem there too. If the US does try to build it's way out of this using uranium as the base nuclear resource, we are looking at the same 'Hubbert Curve" scenario, are we not?

karlof -

I agree with you. So, what has to happen to return the commons to the people in the rest of the US? Because no business that is making money shuts down voluntarily...

Here's an interesting site:

If the Gulf Stream ever shuts down you'll be the first on your block to know it.

As far as engineering talent goes, unless there are jobs going begging in the petrochemical and mining industries right now I don't think major increases in enrollments are going to happen. Most students know that engineering is no longer a way into management in most corporations and you're more likely to be laid off than if you get into sales or marketing. If multinational companies are short of talent you know they will first look to cheaper nations for their engineers.

Another interesting article on "The Financial Endgame" at


"In the scheme of the world to come, society is utterly atomised and totally malleable. Every aspect of normal home and social life is now under attack, and people are so preoccupied with debt repayment and just keeping their heads above water, that they are not able to focus on, let alone comprehend, the society they will bequeath to their own children. To keep the ordinary citizens happy, they are plied with constant mindless entertainments, similar to those staged by the Roman Emperors with their endless Games held in grand stadiums such as the Coliseum in Rome"

Tim -

It's not that the other nations are producing "cheaper" talent, but that the US is producing mediochre talent and graduates in easy subjects.

All you need to do is look at international math and science rankings to see why US graduates are not in high demand. Thus fewer enter into math and science, and thus colleges allocate money to more profitable areas - like social services.

Because the biggest employer in the US is government.

See my rant under "Another Diminishing Resource" for some specifics vis-a-vis my kids.