Drumbeat: September 12, 2010

China Explores a Frontier 2 Miles Deep

When three Chinese scientists plunged to the bottom of the South China Sea in a tiny submarine early this summer, they did more than simply plant their nation’s flag on the dark seabed.

The men, who descended more than two miles in a craft the size of a small truck, also signaled Beijing’s intention to take the lead in exploring remote and inaccessible parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil, minerals and other resources that the Chinese would like to mine. And many of those resources happen to lie in areas where China has clashed repeatedly with its neighbors over territorial claims.

UAE warns higher oil prices will hurt growth

OPEC has successfully balanced the oil market at a price level that accommodates world economic growth, the UAE’s representative to the bloc says.

His comments yesterday came days after Libya called for the export club to push for a price of US$100 a barrel after it has been held to a range of between $65 and $85 since March last year.

“Our concern is that prices should not rise to a level where they hurt global economic growth,” said Ali al Yabhouni, the OPEC Governor for the UAE. “It is clear that at this level that is not happening.”

Beijing may not require additional gas imports by 2020

Consulting House Wood Mackenzie’s recent study looking at the fundamentals of the China gas industry finds that unconventional gas, particularly shale, will increase significantly to help meet China’s strong gas demand growth in future. Domestic unconventional gas production will account for over a quarter of total gas supply by 2030.

The report says that China will need only half as much more liquefied natural gas from 2020 onward than it will require in the intervening decade. This has huge significance for LNG producers and exporters. More interestingly, the report points out that Beijing may not need additional gas transported by pipeline after 2020. “Beyond 2020 we expect to see significant volumes of indigenous unconventional gas entering the market and meeting much of China’s incremental demand,” the report emphasized.

PDVSA: Drillship to Replace Sunken Semisub

Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, said Thursday it's replacing a natural gas exploration rig that sank four months ago with a drillship owned by Petrosaudi Oil Services Ltd.

In a statement, Venezuela's state-run oil company said the ship has already set sail for Venezuelan waters from a port in Malta.

Exxon Shuts Crude Unit at Refinery in Italy After Second Fire in Two Weeks

Exxon Mobil Corp. shut the larger of two crude-distillation units at its Sarpom refinery in Trecate, Italy, after the second fire in almost two weeks.

The blaze, which occurred as the unit was being restarted following a fire on Aug. 31, began at about 8:45 a.m. local time yesterday and was extinguished 45 minutes later, Antonella Sopranzetti, a Rome-based spokeswoman for the company, said today by phone. There were no injuries and an investigation into the cause of the fire is being carried out, she said.

Fire halts shipping at large Venezuela refinery

CARACAS (Reuters) - A fire tore through a dock where an oil tanker was loading on Saturday, briefly halting shipping at Venezuela's 310,000 barrel-per-day Cardon refinery days after a blaze shut another of the OPEC member's oil units.

State oil company PDVSA has been dealt a series of blows to its refining and distribution network in recent months, most recently by a massive fire at a storage terminal used to send oil to China.

Korea National Oil to Sell as Much as $1 Billion Debt to Fund Acquisition

Korea National Oil Corp., the state-owned energy explorer, plans to sell as much as $1 billion of debt to fund takeovers, Yonhap News Agency reported today, in the latest sign Asia’s largest economies are competing to secure global energy resources.

Korea National, engaged in a $2.6 billion hostile takeover battle for Dana Petroleum Plc, plans to raise between $500 million and $1 billion selling bonds, Yonhap said, citing industry and government officials it didn’t identify. Calls to the company’s media department today twice went unanswered.

Gazprom may buy Total's UK petrol stations

The Russians may be coming – to a petrol station near you, if the latest upheaval in the oil industry comes to pass. French energy group Total wants to sell off up to 500 UK forecourts and Gazprom from Moscow is an interested buyer.

The Muscovites have long eyed a major move into Britain but backed off after ideas of taking over British Gas triggered a minor political earthquake in Westminster.

Gas shortage raises prices at the pump in Uzbekistan

Gasoline shortages in Uzbekistan have led to rising prices at the pumps but no one knows for certain what is causing the increase, according to a Thursday report by the EurasiaNet news agency.

Widespread rumors fill a void created by the absence of any comments from Tashkent on the growing crisis.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov fired his two highest energy sector officials in July, only days after authorities raised gasoline prices by around 15 percent. EurasiaNet.org learned from unnamed sources that the two had likely been dismissed for failing to modernize the country’s refineries.

Officials: Calif. gas pipe ranked high risk

SAN BRUNO, California (AP) — The section of gas pipeline that ruptured and exploded in a suburban San Francisco neighborhood, killing four and injuring nearly 60 others, was ranked as high risk because it ran through a highly populated area, state and federal authorities said Saturday.

One of the victims killed in the inferno Thursday worked for the commission reviewing Pacific Gas & Electric's investment plans to upgrade its natural gas lines, including another risky section of the same pipeline within miles of her home, a colleague confirmed.

Enbridge: Oil spills in Ill., Mich. not related

A spokeswoman for Enbridge Energy Partners says an oil pipeline leak in a Chicago suburb doesn't appear related to an earlier spill in Michigan.

Enbridge spokeswoman Terri Larson said the company doesn't know what caused the leak Thursday in the pipeline in Illinois or how much damage has been done.

But she says the company doesn't think it was related to a July rupture in a pipeline in Michigan that spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil. That pipeline remains shut down.

BP and truth

Any investigation must answer questions about the oil giant's corporate culture.

BP internal investigation report leaves some things unsaid

The report says that a mixture could have clogged a line involved in the test, masking the fact that hydrocarbons were flowing into the well.

The material that went into the mixture - more than 400 barrels of products called Form-A-Set and Form-A-Squeeze - was left over on the rig after the well drilling. The material was designed to plug leaks, such as cracks in rock formations.

Under environmental protection standards, if BP used the leftover material in the well, it could then dump the product directly into the gulf instead of transporting it to shore for disposal as hazardous waste, Leo Lindner, a drilling fluid specialist for contractor M-I SWACO, testified at a federal hearing in July.

Louisiana beach town laments loss

GRAND ISLE, La. — It is over. Summer is lost. Those were Fred Marshall’s thoughts as he slumped behind his tiny desk at Gulfstream Marina, worry lines crisscrossing his face, redness framing his weary blue-green eyes in this picturesque beach town.

When BP’s oil started flowing into the Gulf of Mexico in April, beachgoers and money stopped flowing into town. By the time the company managed to cap the deep-water well in mid-July, the damage was done. Summer, when Grand Isle merchants earn the profits they rely on for the rest of the year, was gone, said Marshall, 48.

Ixtoc spill still contaminates coastlines; is that northern Gulf's fate?

As the northern Gulf Coast ponders the long-term effects of the oil spill, attention is increasingly turning to the southwest, where 30 years ago the Ixtoc 1 well spewed millions of gallons of crude onto shorelines in Texas and Mexico.

Texas A&M University researcher Wes Tunnell discovered during recent trips to the Bay of Campeche that remnants of big spills can linger in water and on land for decades.

Refinery emissions could pollute our water

As Canadians look with dismay at the aftermath of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it turns out that’s not the only place we need to worry about leaking oil.

What happened in the Gulf has implications for what happens to water in Canada, right here on the Great Lakes. There’s ever-increasing pressure to supply the oil-thirsty U.S. with more product from Alberta’s tar sands.

Detroit needs to follow through on review of response to last week's fires

The Tuesday fires damaged 71 dwellings in various parts of the city, 29 of which were occupied, according to city officials. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing last week called the fires, fueled by winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour in parched conditions, a "natural disaster." Fire Commissioner James Mack called the fires the result of "extraordinary circumstances."

But it is quite possible that the fires were made worse by faulty and illegal electrical hookups, downed and arcing wires and possible arson. Deputy Mayor Saul Green and Mack met Friday with DTE officials to discuss electricity theft, the utility's response to the downed wires, tree-trimming near electrical lines and better ways for the city and the utility to exchange information during storms.

Little light bulbs make big impact on energy crises

Energy efficiency is seen as the low-hanging fruit in the global quest for clean, reliable energy and nations, rich or poor, want to partake in that harvest.

This summer, Bangladesh managed to break a world record related to energy efficiency set by Britain in 2008. In the course of a single day, people in 27 districts of the developing nation exchanged incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent light bulbs, one light bulb at a time until five million CFLs were distributed.

Iran denies claim of top-secret nuclear site

Tehran, Iran (CNN) -- Iran's top atomic energy official has denied the existence of a major top-secret nuclear enrichment site near Tehran.

"We have no such installation where we enrich uranium," said Ali Akbar Salehi, who spoke to the semi-official Mehr News Agency on Friday.

Supporters of an Iranian opposition group announced Thursday that they have "exclusive" details on a major top-secret strategic nuclear enrichment site buried deep in a mountain northwest of Tehran. But U.S. government officials and nuclear experts are not convinced over the claim.

We're buying too many trucks, Ford says

The surge in popularity of trucks in Canada is drawing concern from an unlikely quarter — Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., maker of the country's best-selling full-size truck.

A combination of high consumer incentives, relatively low oil prices and pent-up demand have conspired to artificially boost truck sales, a trend that is problematic and unsustainable, said David Mondragon, chief executive of Ford of Canada.

"That's a segmentation shift that's not healthy for the environment, not healthy for the economy and long term, we need to see that shift go back to a more balanced approach," Mr. Mondragon said in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto yesterday.

US poverty on track to post record gain in 2009

WASHINGTON — The number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty is on track for a record increase on President Barack Obama's watch, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty.

...Interviews with six demographers who closely track poverty trends found wide consensus that 2009 figures are likely to show a significant rate increase to the range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent.

Should those estimates hold true, some 45 million people in this country, or more than 1 in 7, were poor last year. It would be the highest single-year increase since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. The previous high was in 1980 when the rate jumped 1.3 percentage points to 13 percent during the energy crisis.

Putting a dollar figure on progress

Measuring economic growth is fairly straightforward work and shows that America's lot has steadily improved over the past seven decades. But with crime, climate change and longer commutes, are we really better off?

Maryland's state government is attempting to answer that question by quantifying in dollars the big influences on our well-being that seemingly defy calculation, such air quality and traffic congestion. Its new Genuine Progress Indicator is part of a growing movement to stop using gross domestic product, the closely tracked yardstick of goods and services produced, as a simplified stand-in for measuring quality of life.

9/11 - A Fourth Turning Perspective

The diminishing supply of cheap, easily accessible oil will fundamentally change American society. The entire suburban sprawl existence of America, with 260 million automobiles and food trucked from 1,500 miles to grocery stores will disappear practically overnight.

A call for a new electrical grid

Even if we can realize the 20 or 30 percent reduction in energy that more careful conservation and energy usage offers, we are only given a reprieve of perhaps a decade or so. We do not solve the energy crisis — we only delay it.

There is no single magic bullet for the solution to an energy imbalance that becomes increasingly tight as population and prosperity grows worldwide. Instead, we will have to use a mix of renewable sources ultimately fueled by the sun. Solar, wind, tidal and hydroelectric power must be an increasing part of our energy portfolio. However, while hydroelectric dams can supplement the periodic or unreliable aspects of solar, wind and tidal power, it cannot fill the entire gap.

News From The Future


Energy: Price of switchgrass-based ethanol now cheaper than gasoline, even without government subsidies.

Energy efficient hybrid bike to hit local markets after Eid

MULTAN: Pakistan’s first company manufactured energy efficient hybrid motorcycle is going to hit the domestic market shortly after Eidul Fitr.

And guess what? It gives a taste of quality bike ride with an edge of high-energy efficiency and environment-friendliness.

Japan to bring Canada to WTO over provincial renewable energy subsidy

TOKYO — Japan will file a complaint with the World Trade Organization against Canada possibly next week, saying it should not allow the provincial government of Ontario to treat local firms favorably in subsidizing the cost of solar and wind power generation, government sources said Saturday.

Geothermal equipment to be installed in Yilan

Two modular Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) units are going to be installed in Yilan County with the capacity to generate up to 500 kW of geothermal power, the Pratt & Whitney company said.

The Taiwan Yilang Chingshui Geothermal Project is expected to be operational by the end of the year. In this installation, existing low temperature geothermal resources of about 130 degrees Celsius will be used to fuel two PureCycle systems and generate 500 kW of net power. The project is managed by Global Power Source Company (GPSC) and YANKEE Power & Energy Saving Technology (YPEST). The PureCycle power systems will allow the geothermal project to produce electrical power for the first time in 25 years.

Old-style coal plants expanding across the U.S.

Utilities say they are clinging to coal because coal's abundance makes it cheaper than natural gas or nuclear power and more reliable than intermittent power sources such as wind and solar. Still, the price of coal plants is rising and consumers in some areas served by the new facilities will see their electricity bill rise by up to 30 percent.

Drop the oilsands guilt trip: Goldstein

We live in a big, cold, northern, developed, sparsely-populated, oil-producing country, where the energy requirements for electricity generation, heat and travel alone are enormous compared to other nations.

That’s why our per capita emissions are high, not because we’re evil.

How your house can help solve global warming

Climate change is a complicated problem, but New Mexico architect Edward Mazria says the solution is within reach — right in our homes, schools, office buildings and other structures. He founded Architecture 2030, a non-profit research organization that, in his words, looks at "energy, climate change and the economy, and how it all relates to the building sector."

Climate change hits Korea

Global warming or climate change has been thought of as something reserved for the next generation to worry about. However, the weather affecting the Korean Peninsula these days would seem to belie this.

Recent weather conditions — quite different from the norm — indicate that Korea is already under the influence of global warming, weather experts say.

Weeks of downpours, sizzling summer heat and record snowfall last winter are all associated with the phenomenon and it is the warmer than usual Pacific Ocean that could be responsible.

Marriage advice: A little more counselling needed

When the minister rose to ask if there were any good reasons why Nova Scotia Power and NewPage should not wed and produce a sustainable supply of renewable energy, critics of the deal last week had three good reasons.
First, one of the partners, NewPage Port Hawkesbury, is in a precarious financial position, which could cause the marriage to collapse.
Secondly, the pre-nuptial agreement does not offer enough protection from unplanned expenses and rising fuel costs over the life of the deal.
Thirdly, the consequences of a failed marriage could be visited upon the children for generations to come.

See: http://thechronicleherald.ca/Business/1201365.html


Experts urge Nova Scotia to reject biomass project

HALIFAX - Serious questions are being raised about the financial stability of one of Nova Scotia's largest employers.

NewPage Corp., the Ohio company that owns the pulp mill NewPage Port Hawkesbury, lost $174 million in the second quarter of its financial year, despite an increase in sales.

The parent company, which has undergone a major shakeup of its top executives, reported having $7 million in cash and $113 million available on a line of credit. But it also has a debt of $3.4 billion.

NewPage Port Hawkesbury is a partner with Nova Scotia Power in a controversial $208-million, power-generating plant proposed for nearby Point Tupper.

The plant would make electricity by burning wood waste in an old burner valued at $80 million.

Last month, a U.S. debt-research firm issued two reports showing heightened concern about the parent NewPage Corp., the coated-paper manufacturer owned by private investment firm Cerberus Capital Management LP.

See: http://nbbusinessjournal.canadaeast.com/journal/article/1213679

Best hopes for keeping trees firmly rooted in the ground.


How does using electricity from the grid rather than from wood waste keep trees in the ground?

The biomass project here seems like a good idea to me.

Hi Jack,

Roughly half of the 650,000 tonnes of fuel required each year to operate this particular boiler would be wood waste and the remainder harvested, much of it from clear cuts. Nova Scotia Power already utilizes a blend of coal and wood biomass to fuel its thermal generating plants and it's not clear whether this additional demand would be sustainable -- approximately twelve million tonnes worth beyond what is already being harvested over the duration of the 40 year contract. In fact, NSP in its testimony before the NSURB has admitted that it has not considered what impacts, if any, it may have on our provincial forests. That doesn't strike me as very prudent.


Thanks. Your answer makes sense.

I couldn't find all of the details in the links, but this does look like a massively over-sized project that is in part designed to use harvested wood for direct sale to the grid.

I don't see a capacity figure, but guess this thing must be huge based on the $200mn cap ex. Over 100MW probably.

However, I do think much of the common opposition to biomass plants in general is ill-conceived. This, http://www.energyjustice.net/biomass, from a comment on the original article is an exercise in misinformation and persuasion-based on fear rather than logic.

Thailand, where I live, generates 3% of capacity (IEA) from biomass and biogas. Most of this from waste products (bagasse, rice husks, swine waste, food processing waste). This equals about one GW has eliminated the need for the equivalent of one giant coal or gas-fired power plant.

Almost all of these facilities are small, increase farm incomes, offset imports, create almost no GHg emissions, reduce pollution, etc. It would be nice to be able delude oneself like energy justice and pretend that this would have been replaced with wind or solar (or that they are really perfect) or by conservation, but it is not true.

Opposing biomass in general is the same as advocating for coal, or living in a fantasy world.

It's not the 'same as advocating for coal'.

It's not inappropriate to point out the shortcomings of any of our generating sources, just because other ones like coal are even worse, and yet might have enough cheap resource to still be growing where it can. Calling it that is merely baiting.

The fact that wood (and other biomass) will continue to be burned is as inevitable as our continuing use of coal.. but the downsides and limitations of both of them has to be kept visible. Opposing them doesn't mean they'll go away, and like Corn Ethanol, there will be cases where they make sense. I spent part of Sunday splitting my firewood for winter.. but better solutions urgently need to be kept at the forefront, or coal will leave us with Southern Appalachia's Decimated Mountains and Maine's Toxic Rivers, and Biomass will Denude increasing regions as it does in Africa, India and Haiti today (to name a few)..

Fantasy? In part, sure. The idea that we can make significant improvements pretty much IS a fantasy until we bring it into reality.. and yet we know many improvements that help tremendously, like the incredible buildout of solar heaters across china, or the scattered but growing incidents of Solar Cookers across other developing nations to help curtail the incessant stripping of biomass from already barren areas.

Hi Bob,

As you might gather, I despise coal-fired generation rather intensely and the thought of causing long-term harm to our forests doesn't sit well with me either. Thankfully, we have other options, albeit some are likely to be more costly. Be that as it may, we need to find the appropriate mix of ecologically sustainable solutions that work best and not rush headlong into something that could ultimately prove equally harmful.

I'm not privy to the inner circles at NSP (nor the far outer ones for that matter), but my suspicion is that this deal is intended to help prop-up a major industrial customer that should it close would result in a major loss of load.


You're welcome, Jack. To answer your question, this plant would supply 60 MW to the grid. In a nutshell, if this energy is to be considered truly renewable, then the fuel that powers it should be, itself, renewable and that's not altogether certain. When experienced and well-respected foresters and even the wood lot owners that would be supplying the plant are voicing their concerns publicly, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. Even if these environmental matters were of little or no concern, investing over $200 million of ratepayer dollars in a joint venture with a partner that is reportedly in dire financial shape should raise a couple red flags of its own.

I think we have some better options available to us such as wind, low-impact hydro and possibly tidal (we have one 20 MW tidal plant already in place and a couple experimental units now undergoing testing). It might also make sense to import power from Hydro-Québec, at least over the short-term whist we're busy ramping up these other sources. Lastly, Nova Scotians waste huge amounts of electricity because it has been historically quite cheap. Nova Scotia Power is addressing that with its various DSM initiatives and this is another area rather rich in opportunities.


300,000 tonnes per annum of additional wood is only a few per cent addition to Nova Scotia's total annual cut. However, some claim NS's annual cut has already reached or even exceeded the maximum sustainable yield: not being an expert on Canadian forestry, I don't know how realistic this concern is.

Biomass fuel can use the poorest quality wood, which might otherwise be left to rot, but it's certainly true that biomass availability is not limitless. In the UK, if all our present biomass burning proposals go ahead, some of the biomass will have to be imported.

Looks like you already are importing quite a lot of biomass (for fuel), from Biomass magazine;

Currently, the UK imports the equivalent of 54 terawatt-hours of biomass for energy production. This is more than half of the country’s potential biomass production under the biomass strategy. Imports of biomass and biofuels are expected to increase.


At 5000kWh/ton (dry wood) , I make that to be 10million tons of wood or equivalent - a surprisingly large amount.

As you point out, the good thing about biomass is that it can be very low grade wood, including woody weeds like willow, so some otherwise unused land can be put into production. Still, it has to be recognised the potential is limited, and the forests must be managed.

I know that BC exports over a million tons of wood pellets to the EU each year (mostly to Sweden, I think). It is amazing that it is worth shipping the stuff the 16,000 mile journey, via the Panama Canal. Since these bulk carriers can not often backload, they use 25% of the wood pellets' heat value for the ship to do the round trip (1000 ton-miles/gallon)! And that, of course, is all non renewable oil!
Given that half a million barrels a day of heating oil is still used on this continent, shipping wood pellets to Europe does not seem in the planet's best interests! It is only because of the artificially high prices there, for this "clean fuel", that so much oil is used in supplying it to there from here!

It's true that the UK is now importing biomass - I hadn't realised this had already started - but the article in Biomass magazine wildly exaggerates it. Referring to chart 7.1 in http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/Statistics/publications/dukes/313-duk..., we see that in 2009 the UK imported 6% out of a total of 6.875 Mtonnes of oil equivalent.

A Mtonne of oil = 12TWh, hence last year's imports = 6% x 6.875 x 12 = 5 TWh, which is a lot less than 54 TWh! Biomass magazine (published in North Dakota) is perhaps not the most well-informed source of information on the UK...

Shipping a bulky ultra-low-value commodity like fuel biomass over vast distances is of course utterly insane, both for economic & carbon footprint reasons. It demonstrates how badly thought out are the present renewable energy subsidies.

SF, I'll take your numbers over Biomass magazines anyday - maybe they got a decimal point wrong somewhere..
But agreed, shipping stuff from here to there just because of different tax/subsidy regimes is a false economy, and a pointless transfer of wealth.
All the wood pellets produced in Can/US today would still not displace the hating oil used in both countries, and that has to be about the lowest hanging oil conservation fruit there is. It just shows that, companies will game the systems to make money (which is their mission), not try an d achieve governmental objectives. The various governments certainly need to rethink what their objectives are and how they will reach them because at present, little real progress is being made.

Hi SF,

I expect biomass generation will play a roll in our energy future, but I would prefer that we proceed cautiously. NSP is hellbent to get this contract in place so that it can meet its renewable energy targets and forty years is a very long time. Sadly, this province's track record when it comes to good forestry practices is far from stellar (e.g., http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/3082).


Biomass fuel can use the poorest quality wood, which might otherwise be left to rot,

Some of it _should_ be left to rot, or the productivity of the site (and the sustainable level of biomass production) will decrease. Especially the smaller branches, twigs, and leaves, where the majority of the nutrient elements are.

Indeed, and the soils in this province are nutrient poor; we can't afford to rob them further.

Prest, of Moose River, has been supplying NewPage’s mill for the past 25 years. He said the economics of the biomass energy project require the lowest-cost supply of forest products and will marginalize small woodlot owners.

"The one thing that really concerns us is this whole biomass-to-energy concept requires that the biomass fuel be very, very, very low cost in order to make it economically viable. . . . The only way to keep those costs down are to use very capital-intensive operations with expensive machinery," he said.

"The need for this biomass fuel to be low cost is what makes it impossible to conduct forestry operations in a manner that is ecologically sustainable.

"Many woodlot owners can be convinced that the opportunity to sell dead, dying or deformed wood is a chance to get their woodlot cleaned up and in shape. All this defective wood serves a very important ecological role, and it’s absolutely critical that enough of that be left behind after harvest to maintain the ecological integrity of the forest."

See: http://bioenergy.checkbiotech.org/news/nova_scotia_power_faces_oppositio...


Paul, it sounds like the solution is for the woodlot owners to just not sell at low prices. If New Page has to buy because of these requirements, then they will have to pay the price for the feedstock, or else import from somewhere else.

At present, they are one big buyer in a market of many small sellers, who have no alternative market, so they have effectively divided and conquered.

What needs to happen os for the wood lot owners to form a co-operative, and sell through one desk. Lots of fisherman, dairy farmers etc do this, to avoid that same problem. I propose they call their body NOPEC, for NOva scotia Producers Environmental Co-operative. Create some storage areas to hold inventory, set a floor price, that everyone can live with and publish the prices online and in the local newspapers etc. Anyone who is considering an alternative wood biomass business, e.g. pellets, has access to the same feedstock at the same price, so then there will be some competing buyers, though they don;t have the renewable requirement to meet that New Page/NSP has.
If, for example, New Page wants to pay $50/dry ton , and that will produce 1650kWh (30%eff), which NSP then sells for $165 (10c/kWh), then I think everyone can ask just where all that difference is going. Also, if that IS the sort of margin you are looking at, then some of those woodlot owners should consider going into the electricity business themselves.

A woodlot owner who is going to produce 100 tons/day can make and sell $100 worth of electricity/ton (6c/kWh), or $3.65m/yr. They don;t have to transport the stuff as far, possibly not at all. They can structure their operations to suit their needs/staff/equipment/weather much better.
And, the wood ash is not contaminated with coal ash, and can be broadcast back onto their woodlot.

For my greenhouse project, I am looking at about $1000/kW for basic gasifier + engine+gen equipment, and then some extra for material handling and interconnection, so it is not outrageous expensive.

If they started doing that, even if one of them did that, and publicised it, they might just get some better treatment and pricing from New Page. In fact, it would be worth their while to get together and fund just such a demonstration project - it would instantly put them in a much better bargaining position when everyone knows there is an alternative. May be more labour intensive, but better to spend money on local jobs than imported machinery to replace them.

IF NSP can get its renewable power directly from the wood lot owners instead of from New Page, then they (New Page) will come under the microscope about their coal use - which is a good thing.

In this case, the woodlot owners are getting the short end of the stick so that New Page and NSP can say how green they are.

Biomass is a distributed resource - it is best suited to distributed generation. Clearly the concentration of "power" here is not doing the locals any favours.

Apologies for the rant, but they don't have to just take it lying down.


Way back in the day, Burlington (VT) Electric converted a coal-fired boiler to wood chip. I don't quite remember what happened (30+ years ago) - whether there was a guaranteed price for chips or a simple guarantee that they'd buy them. The idea was that it would give landowners a market for their crap wood and encourage TSI (Timber Stand Improvement).

In any event, the chips arrived, and arrived, and arrived, and they piled up, mountains of them. They started to compost, and if you were downwind, your eyes would water from some strange substance this composting process released (smelled like formaldehyde or something). Very unpleasant. And then the spontaneous combustions began.

Long story short, between the problems posed by mountains of chips, and a concern for the environmental impacts of people now simply clearcutting their land to take advantage of generous policies, a change in chip-buying policy was implemented. I haven't lived in Burlington for a long time, but as far as I know they're still burning woodchips in at least one of their boilers.

We had very low electricity rates, BTW.

This still all sounds like the plant is far too big and that the scale is only justified by subsidies for off take and squeezing farmers margins.

In Asia, the resources suppliers have all the power and the power producers are the ones who are squeezed. Could the growers just build their own small plants(or set of them)? Biomass very rarely provides that much advantage to scale. How hard is it to sell into the grid?

meanwhile, in BC...
My local pulp mill has just commissioned a 40MWe generating unit (with $37m from our government)


The difference here, of course, is that this mill will be burning mostly beetle kill wood from the BC interior, and the amount of that, today, can fuel this mill for 2,800 years! Plus there is ample amounts of harvesting slash, driftwood and local wood waste, which all goes to the mill. Not one good tree need ever be cut down for this power plant.

Best hopes for standing dead trees being burnt in boilers rather than in the fields!

But I agree with you Paul, that burning perfectly good trees is just a waste, and detrimental to the forests.

PS. I may have the opportunity to do a project that you could appreciate at a local greenhouse. They have no natural gas for heating, and so use electric resistance heating - peak demand is up to 500kW(!). I am looking at a woodchip system, version one to just provide the heat, version 2 a cogen system (based on gasification and ICE's) to generate 200kWe to sell back to BCHydro, and use the 500kW of waste heat for the greenhouse. It will need just 3.5 tons of woodwaste/day to do this - our local landfill receives 15t/day of the stuff!
BC Hydro have announce new pricing for renewable systems from 50kWto 5MW, now paying about 10.5c/kWh (was 5c 4yrs ago, the 8c 2yrs ago), so many small, renewable projects are now viable. I expect to see a lot of landfill and sewage sludge projects happen here over the enxt few years.



That sounds like a great project, Paul, and I hope it comes through for you. A 500 kW savings is pretty damn impressive !

I suspect BC is miles ahead of Nova Scotia with respect to its forestry practices. We have much to learn.


Thx Paul, Just notes on paper and a receptive greenhouse owner at this point, but we'll see. It will help that BCH will fund half the project!

I'm not sure that BC is actually any further ahead in forestry. Here, they have the luxury of such huge land bank, with most lumber companies having 100+ years of supply, that they don;t need to optimise the production of their land. They have improved their practices a lot, but there's still more that can be done. Another part of it is that much of the logging is out of sight, out of mind - until they tried to log in my local drinking watershed. Of course, they wanted to do it in late summer/fall when ground is driest, then there was a rainstorm that caused lots of erosion i their work area and turned the creek brown, just as the salmon were running. They are not allowed to log there anymore!

The thing that annoys me most is burning of slash piles, if they can;t find a beneficial use for them (woodchips/pellets, etc), then I think they should chip them and broadcast the chips (or torrefy them and broadcast the biochar). When they bun the huge slash piles, the ash is then so concentrated at that location that the soil becomes sterile. Wouldn't be that big a deal to chip and broadcast, and you get much improved soil quality, runoff reduction, etc etc.

I don't get the whole notion of "wood waste".
When wood is not burned it rots and eventually turns into soil. "wood waste" seems to be an artifact of an extremely short-term horizon of events.Nature doesn't produce waste, just energy sources humans may not be able to use.


I've just finally found the PDF of a book about Jean Pain, a Frenchman who, in the 60's and 70's experimented with some hardcore composting on his land in Provence, using the ubiquitous scrubbrush to create mulch that would ultimately rebuild the very poor Mediterranean soils his land had been left with. As his experiments grew, he ultimately was getting direct heating AND methane production from these great piles of mulch, and still using the remaining solids to enrich the ground where he was growing all sorts of food and flower that had been impossible before. He used the gas for cooking, for running his truck and also had a small electric generator running from it as well.

It would take a lot of work, but also paid back it seems in many ways, too.

(look down the list for 'Another kind of garden, Jean Pain' Out of Print)

The rest of the list has a number of other permaculture sources, including Fukuoka, Holmgren and Mollison

It should be noted, too, that Mssr Pain was NOT clearcutting, but coppicing the trees in these areas, well aware of the further damage that the land is vulnerable to if the root systems in the soil are eviscerated.

There's also a German News story about this on You Tube, with English Subtitles. (2 Parts)


(and I raise this as a somewhat exceptionally appropriate and restrained use of biomass, as opposed to the 'Thorough Extraction' mentality most industrial systems would inevitably apply.)

In regards to the second Enbridge pipeline break [up top], work is proceeding very slowly and the company does not know when it may be repaired.

Even if repaired, it is not clear how soon regulatory approval will allow it to be reopened. Based upon available information, the first pipeline break has been repaired and may be allowed to reopen in stages this week - although regulators may be reconsider their decision in light of a second break.

Enbridge Starts Work on The Damaged Pipe on Saturday
Submitted by Karan Dhindsa on Sun, 09/12/2010 - 11:59

The work on the damaged pipeline in Romeoville, Illinois would initiate on Saturday, as Enbridge Incorporation stepped in to stop the leakage. This leak forced Enbridge to bring the process of shipping crude oil from Canada to US, to a halt when it was detected two days ago.

Enbridge did not give a specific date on which the shipment of oil would be recovered, saying that this location is so delicate that the workers, at some point of digging, would have to work by hand, with no machinery included. According to Enbridge, the utility lines and sewer pipes supporting this pipe would require complicated and heavy work to move.


This from Chicago Breaking News (yesterday) :-

"EPA says oil pipe leak in Romeoville is slowing"

"...Sam Borries, the agency's coordinator at the scene, said today the oil is no longer rising to the surface and crews have cut open pavement and dug about 5 feet to the 34-inch diameter pipe...

...Enbridge officials have shut down a three-mile stretch of the pipeline, containing about 16,000 barrels of oil, to deal with the leak. They have estimated they need to drain about 8,000 barrels of oil from the isolated section of pipeline before they can excavate it to investigate the cause and make repairs...

...Oil from the leak flowed into the village's storm water sewer system and made its way to the village's wastewater treatment facility. However, the village was able to siphon off the oil and restart the wastewater treatment facility, Hedman said...

...Concern remained over a nearby retention pond and workers were draining off oil from the pond to ensure oil did not spill over into any tributaries leading to the DesPlaines River...

...EPA officials said they will not know if any of the oil has seeped into the groundwater until the pipe can be excavated and the soil around it is tested..."

Full article here :-


Postscript : In reading the different articles relating to this topic, it always amazes me how different "angles" surface - on the one hand, the concern is how quickly to get the pipeline back up and running so business can continue. On the other hand, the efforts to make sure the leak doesn't cause serious contamination in the local community.

Charles - are you familiar with the National Atlas of the United States of America? Like me it's almost 40 years old ;) but still has plenty of pertinent info; I'm thinking primarily here of the maps of hydrocarbon pipelines, which are much more detailed than later efforts. Indeed you can't get very precise details on where lines run anymore, owing to beefed up security in the past 9 years.

The Romeoville leak is on the Lakehead line running northwest from Chicago to Dubuque. The Lakehead system has been in operation for over 60 years. It covers various lines running around the Great Lakes, including the 6B line in Michigan detailed at the above link.

Thanks much, and I was not familiar with this specific map.

It's my understanding that product supplies in the Chicago area and four major refineries downstream of the Michigan pipeline break can be re-routed through pipelines from the Philadelphia area to the Chicago area, the Linden, NJ area near the NYC harbor to the Midwest, and also, there were news reports of European gasoline tankers landing in Portland, ME, whose cargo would apparently would be routed into Canada. On that Portland route, I am not sure if supplies can be sent back down south to the US again, or were intended for the parts of Canada that were downstream of the Michigan break too. There may also be other product lines that could help out.

Hi, Charles
I'm glad that you are interested in our collective pipeline distribution system (by collective, I mean Canada and USA).

I would be surprised if pipelines in Philly would flow westward as far as Chicago, but I could be wrong.

I'm not sure about gasoline tankers in Portland, either.
The Portland-Montreal Pipeline was built during WW2.
It is a dual-line which flows northwest from Portland to Montreal and as far as I know, it only carries crude.
If Portland unloads product (eg. gasoline) then I presume it's for local use... I am not aware of a pipeline from Portland which runs southwest (to serve New England).

Crude via Portland hits the Montreal refineries first, and the surplus flows through Enbridge Line 9 southwest all the way to Sarnia, which is also supplied from Alberta via Enbridge Line 5 and Line 6b, both of which flow south of Lake Superior and west of Lake Huron (the Michigan break is on 6b).

Another point: pipelines flow in only one direction.
Reversing their flow is possible (and was done on LIne 9 here in Ontario a decade ago), but it requires approval and many months of reversing pumps, changing the check-valves, etc... not a simple flick of a switch.

I recently posted or talked about a news article stating extra gasoline tankers coming from Europe were landing in Portland, although it said nothing about where the gasoline was going. Therefore I don't know for sure where that went, but the implication was that it was to help with lost supplies from the Michigan break. I suppose it possible it could even be re-transported onto smaller tankers, as I understand takes place in the southeast US.

I don't have much specific knowledge of individual pipelines but a small number have had their directions reversed in the last few years - mostly to accomadate more oil coming in from Canada and mostly oil moving from OK or the GOM to northern locations.

This new article from the Wall Street Journal states the Enbridge has not yet received approval to reopen the repaired first pipeline break.

* SEPTEMBER 12, 2010, 12:49 P.M. ET
Broken Pipeline Pushes Up Crude Price

Enbridge has repaired Line 6B, but is awaiting approval from federal regulators to reopen the line. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of that leak.

The Chicago area contains numerous pipelines through which Enbridge could divert imports, said pipeline analysts. Scott Fogleman, an analyst at investment bank Morgan Keegan, said the Lakehead system is only running at about two-thirds capacity.

"There is plenty of room on other pipelines," Mr. Fogleman said.

Due to increased regulatory scrutiny after the Michigan leak, there may be a longer-than-usual delay in restarting the pipeline. J.P. Morgan analysts said a two-week outage could result in a four million- to 4.5 million-barrel decline in U.S. crude inventories.

(subscription may be required)

Strangely, energy analysts seem mostly unconcerned about the effect of multiple pipeline problems on US oil and gasoline supplies. They seem to believe that supplies can be otherwise made up by re-routing available supplies elsewhere in the US. To a certain limited extent they are right about market based solutions - which gave us a 30 cents/gallon rise in gasoline prices Friday in Chicago relative to the rest of the country. However it would be a mistake to think that oil and product supplies and surpluses are evenly distributed across the country, and readily available to all that need them.

Link goes to a post that has about every sentence href'ed -- that's kind-of funny to me. The quote below is something to chew on. The Nissan off-topic advertisement at the end was new to me...

Serial Oil Spiller Claims Local Mess is Unrelated to Their Michigan Mess...Sigh...

“This most recent spill by Enbridge along Line 6A in Illinois left me stunned, but not entirely surprised,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek. “It once again demonstrates the company’s apparent inability to safely operate their pipeline system. It is a reminder of the urgency of fixing all defects in Line 6B, the line that ruptured in Michigan, before it can be restarted. The health and safety of those living near the pipeline system cannot be compromised.”

Here is a comparison b/w Indianapolis and Houston gas prices since LINE 6B came off-line. h`

A little humor for today - found at this link on Energybulletin, and entitled "Carbon Weevils".


"Carbon Weevils"


There Joe tells me that there is a plan to open up the volunteer scheme in Lostwithiel , to keep a sort of data base so that every time a volunteer is needed anyone on the list can be called on and different people can get to volunteer on different projects. It seems like a really good way for people to have a notion of what is going on their town. It will work well for Anne Marie when she needs folk to pick apples for the Abundance project.

Sounds like a timebank.

Other software to do that tracking

Some tidbits from the current on-line issue of MIT's Technology Review:

Diesel-hybrids (~60 MPG for certain Mercedes models) coming to Europe:

A cheaper, safer way to transport NG in ships:

Fungus Genes Help Turn Grass into Ethanol:

Are Genetically Modified Salmon Headed to the Supermarket?

Humans can be clever...but I don't see any of these ideas (or even the sum total) as 'silver bullets'.

I do wonder what the mean MPG is for the European non-commercial, non-recreational vehicle fleet is currently, and what the same number is for the U.S.?


From New Scientist:
US navy seeks 'safer' bomb

The $9.9M for RDT&E estimate is just an estimate which will likely double at least, but still just the camel's node under the tent: The manufacturing production over many years to replace our current conventional bombs with the newer, fancier 'select-a-yield' bombs will be worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. Then add the costs of the new sensors and data links (yes, the bombs will report back right how ell they did), the new aircraft to drop the bombs, the new intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance assets needed to support these new capabilities, and the new command, control, computers, and communications required to orchestrate this ever-growing complexity...

If Alt energy and efficiency/conservation technologies had received this kind of financial investment love over the last 50 years, I wonder what the energy supply and consumption landscape might look like today?

Of course, it would have been a huge concurrent help to have had societies norm to a 2-child per woman per lifetime paradigm 50 years ago...

It is not too late to make the proper investments in helpful technologies and to advocate ideas to better modulate population growth...

Not to worry, Oil will soon be obsolete.

An abundance of oil

It has been said that the world did not move beyond the Stone Age because of a shortage of stones, and that the same is likely true of oil. “From a practical perspective, what I expect will happen is that oil will become increasingly obsolete,” says Atkins. In the meantime, expect to continue paying more for the black gold than it’s actually worth.

Ron P.

Those quoted are blind to the PO plateau and its effects. Peter Beutel has been downplaying the effects of Peak Oil for some years now, and has been perplexed about the price of for at least three years - if not longer.

Beutel's idea that speculators are pushing prices is not new, but isn't his whole business based upon speculation and predicting prices? This is kind of like a tobacco executive saying don't you know cigarettes can cause cancer?

Anyway the fact that oil is selling for $70 or more for some five years now indicates that its utility of value as compared to the cost of new discoveries is at least in the $70 area. For someone in India, with 10 times less oil used per dollar of GDP, the utility of oil may be well beyond $100.

Peter Beutel has been downplaying the effects of Peak Oil for some years now, and has been perplexed about the price of for at least three years - if not longer.

He may be right about supply, but his price handling, seems frankly unbalanced.

He seems to base price on the cost of production for each barrel, whilst what REALLY sets the price, is the cartel style bidding, that determines the price of the LAST FEW %.

So, if that last few % can sell for $65, those who can pump it for $5, are NOT going to offer it at $10!!

Beutel was on CNBC again this morning. At least I think it was him. It was early, and I was half asleep. I heard them call him "Peter."

Anyway, he sounded quite reasonable, despite Joe Kernen's attempts to bait him into making fun of peak oil doomers. He said he expected peak oil to be between 2014 and 2018, which seemed to surprise Kernen.

But he didn't seem to make the link between high oil prices and resource scarcity. He said oil needed to be between $10-$20 for the economy to do well, and that the economy never did well when oil prices were high.

Previously (a few years back) Beutel had mocked the concept of Peak Oil, so I am a bit surprised that now he has come over to the dark side and is now expecting PO fairly soon (four years is soon for an optimist like him).

Other than his wild price predictions, he may right in that it might actual take a very low oil price for long term growth within the US to continue. But short term growth in the US is possible at current prices, mostly due to the great amount of infrastructure built up in the US while oil was cheap – and growth in other parts of the world. However for countries like China and India, I don’t think the price of oil of $70 is very high at all compared to its utility of value in those developing countries.

Beutel did a turnaround on peak oil awhile back. During the price spike, I think.

However, he still thinks the current prices are due to speculation.

We're being ripped off! Where's my $0.90 a gallon gasoline?

....raising the question of how much the precious resource is actually worth in the first place. The answer, says analyst Peter Beutel, the president of energy consultancy Cameron Hanover, is not much more than $10, based on a pure supply and demand calculation.

But, what if it costs more than $10 a barrel to produce all that oil (much more, if from the Gulf of Mexico)? How much oil would OPEC produce at $10 a barrel? Can't the economists out there understand their own business models? I guess not...

E. Swanson

We're being ripped off! Where's my $0.90 a gallon gasoline?

You shill for Big Oil - $0.25 a gallon is the right price for a gallon. You claiming $0.90 a gallon justs shows you are trying to line to pockets of Big Oil. What's next? Calling for the return of George HW Bush as President?

*finds doctor to patch cheek*

In defense (?) of one of Beutel's precepts: Daily Cushing spot price 1986-2010, with day-to-day diff in price AND 1 month moving average of same:

Crude Price Daily Cushing FOB Diff and MA

Volatility in price seems to now be, to borrow a phrase from the programming world, a feature not a bug. That can be laid to rest at the feet of commodities traders, and apparently OPEC are fine with that, assuming they really could tamp down prices by flooding the world with supply. The fact that they aren't even when automakers are ready to fill showrooms with Volts and LEAFs that fairly sip oil or don't use the stuff at all suggests various realities, none of which I think are necessary to go over again.

These are spot prices, which probably make up a very small percentage of actual delivered volume. As the portion of product sold on spot goes down, the volatility of spot prices goes up, so that alone could explain increased volatility.

Volatility on the chart is expressed in terms of day to day price changes in $ terms, which also magnifies the impact. On this chart if $100 oil goes up $10 it looks twice as big as $50 oil going up $5, however, they are really the same in percentage terms.

I don't think the chart is so meaningful.

I also don't know what the last sentence in your comment means, so maybe whatever you are talking about is worth going over again.

Oil will become obsolete.

Either we will find a way to do what we want to without it and won't need it anymore, or we won't find a replacement and it will become too expensive over time for anyone to use for anything.

Either way it will be obsolete...

No, it just does not work that way. If we were to find some sort of miracle substance that was cheaper and more abundant than oil, and would magically regenerate itself every time a barrel was pumped out, then oil would become obsolete.

Oil cannot possibly become obsolete because it gets too expensive. Think about it. If there were oil but no one could afford it, then the oil would be worthless to the owner. Then the owner would have to lower the price until someone could afford it.

Some people just cannot seem to understand the relationship between supply, demand and price. Price is always the arbitrator between supply and demand. No matter what the supply is the price will either rise or fall so that demand equals supply. So as long as there is oil the price will always be such that all the oil demanded.

High price cannot possibly cause oil to become obsolete. Either way, oil will not become obsolete... Unless, of course, you find that magic stuff that is cheaper and more abundant than oil.

Ron P.

If not enough people can afford it at a price that makes it worth pumping it out of the ground, it stays in the ground.

Just to use sample numbers to illustrate my point:
If it costs me $5000/year to keep a well open, and the clearing price for oil is $100/barrel, I need to be able to find buyers for a dead minimum of 50 barrels of oil per year, or I have to shut in the well as a money loser.

If I can't reach enough buyers at a good enough price to make my $5000/year (ideally plus some profit so I can feed my family), that oil goes off the market in short order.

If this condition is widespread, the oil market goes away.
Things that were done with oil are either done some other way or are not done at all.

At this point oil is obsolete, even if no proper substitute was ever discovered.

Widen your horizons a bit, Ron, this is not that tough a scenario to understand yet you have been arguing that it is impossible for quite a while now.

Yair...anyone care to speculate on what price is needed to explore/develop and build out the infrastructure needed to produce the deep water plays off Brazil and the hard to get at Arctic oil...like can that be financed at present prices?

If not enough people can afford it at a price that makes it worth pumping it out of the ground, it stays in the ground.

Absolutely, but that is not the same as being obsolete. Oil in the ground is oil that is not available. Only something that IS available can be obsolete. You do not seem to know the meaning of the word.

An example is copper. If copper becomes no longer available we will have to find some substitute. But most substitutes cost more and are not as conductive. So we use something else because we have no copper. We would still use copper if it were available. It is not but it is not obsolete.

Ron P.

Some people just cannot seem to understand the relationship between supply, demand and price.

1. What is the current free market price ($$$) for asbestos insulation for home and office?

2. What is $$$ for stuffed toys filled with toxins?

3. What is $$$ for lead-based paints that kids can chew on?

4. What is the "price" of highly addictive drugs when provided in large volumes?

Inquiring economists want to know.
Because we want to make "rational" decisions based on supply/demand/price

Step back, get a grip. Your examples are not examples except the last one.

What is the demand for asbestos? What is the demand for toys filled toxins? What is the demand for led based paints for homes?

The price of addictive drugs does control supply and demand. Why do you think the price of crack is so high?

I forgot to mention price controls and rationing in my original post. That throws supply and demand out of whack but price controls cannot make anything obsolete.

Ron P.

UAE warns higher oil prices will hurt growth

OPEC has successfully balanced the oil market at a price level that accommodates world economic growth, the UAE’s representative to the bloc says.

His comments yesterday came days after Libya called for the export club to push for a price of US$100 a barrel after it has been held to a range of between $65 and $85 since March last year.

“Our concern is that prices should not rise to a level where they hurt global economic growth,” said Ali al Yabhouni, the OPEC Governor for the UAE. “It is clear that at this level that is not happening.”

It is clear that oil prices are not hurting economic growth? I think it is pretty clear that the opposite is true.

OT: (mais oui !)

I had always understood the term "couch surfing" to involve a TV remote, the thumb dexterity of a seasoned Blackberry user, a spare pair of triple-A batteries (just in case) and your beverage of choice, well Lord Thunder'n Jesus b'ye, I waz wrong. Apparently, it's a great way to travel inexpensively, see the world and make new friends (e.g., http://www.cbc.ca/nl/features/couchsurfing/). And it's low-energy/low-carbon ta boot, 'cause you're not exactly jetting off on the Concord and staying at the Ritz Carlton.

All kidd'n aside, I think it's a fantastic idea and one particularly well suited for an energy and/or financially constrained world. For more info, see: http://www.couchsurfing.org/


Public awareness of fuel pipelines

Thursday's pipeline explosion in California raises several issues which are relevant to many communities.

Yesterday's NYT says that some residents noticed a gas smell for weeks, but really did not think too much of it, apparently unaware of the danger on their doorstep:

This LA Times article is even more to the point: many residents had no clue that they were living near a pipeline (including one lady who had lived there for 34 years).

The argument that pipeline locations need to be kept secret because of terrorist concerns is surely outweighed by the benefits of having vigilant citizens in the vicinity.
In the case of the San Bruno gas leak and both of the recent Enbridge crude oil leaks, the first people to notice the leaks were local residents, many of whom did not comprehend the situation.
That is, they first noticed an unusual smell, but failed to understand its significance.

If the San Bruno residents had been fully aware of the proximity of the pipeline to their homes, at least two things would have occurred differently.
First, neighbours would surely have been much more concerned and proactive when the gas smell was first noticed (weeks ago, according to the NYT).
Second, the first thought of local residents (in response to the fireball) would probably not have been that a plane had somehow crashed, but rather, "My god, what if it's that pipeline...."

Returning to the issue of secrecy re critical infrastructure, local residents who are well-informed and vigilant can provide a layer of front-line security, both against terrorists who may be snooping around and to hissing sounds and fuel-like odors.
As existing oil & gas pipelines continue to age, the latter is far more likely than the former, and we should plan according.

In Canada, pipelines are always clearly marked:

Warning signs are placed on each side of highway, road, railway or watercourse crossings and at suitable intervals along the pipeline to clearly and continuously mark the pipeline’s location through urban areas and along the right-of-ways of roads or highways.

There are wide Rights of Way for any pipeline, and there are even wider Safety Zones on each side of the Right of Way.

ROWs are generally 18 to 20 metres (60 to 66 feet) wide. Although there are no regulations governing the dimensions of an ROW, there are regulations pertaining to the Safety Zone, which extends 30 metres (100 feet) on either side of the ROW.

The Right of Way is quite obvious even without the signs because it is completely clear of buildings and trees:

ROWs can be recognized as corridors which are clear of trees, buildings and other structures and are clearly marked by warning signs.

And pipelines are routinely monitored by computers, low-flying aircraft, and ground crews:

Most pipeline systems are monitored remotely from computerized control centres. Control valves located at regular intervals along the line close automatically if pressure drops are detected to limit the amount of throughput released. Pipelines are also monitored by low-flying aircraft and ground crews with specialized detection equipment.

So, obviously, regulations in California are quite a bit different than Canada. See Pipelines in the Community for the Canadian rules.

A question about people who say they smelled gas before the explosion. Does anyone know when they add the mercaptan to the natural gas? Is it before it gets into that big pipeline or just before it is delivered to retail customers?

It has no odor until then.

A story was told to me by a farmer this summer about a farmer he knew several years ago who wanted to dig a tailwater pit for his irrigation system. After he met with the excavator guy, but before they could start digging, the local sheriff sped up, warning them not to dig, as a gas line was under them. He later got a visit from a gas line employee, who showed him satellite photos of them at the edge of the field preparing to dig. He said they regularly monitor the pipeline, caught the potential disaster, and called the local law since they couldn't get to the site in time. The satellite they use apparently can focus down on individual corn plants.
There is a gasline near my mother's place that has signs posted at every road. It was converted to gas from oil many years ago and has been upgraded to handle even higher pressure and more volume by adding grids buried underground to bleed off static electricity that builds up in the pipe. It is regularly patrolled.
Based on local experience, I think the pipeline company is in for a rough ride with the law, as well as civil lawsuits.

Rick - A couple of points. According to one article I read the subdivision that suffered most of the damage had NG utilitieis. I'm truly sorry for the loss those folks suffered but if you have NG running into your house and you don't report a smell of NG in the neigborhood then there's something seriously lacking in your education. I doubt pipeline rules are any different in CA then the rest of the country. You might not be able to get a map of pipelines in an area thanks to HLS but pipelines are very obvious on the ground...lots of markers/warnings. But you have to look to see it. A house could have a pipeline running right behind the back fence and the home owner might not know it if he did't peak over the fence. Pipelines, as a rule, are clearly marked on the ground. But you have to look at the markers to know it. I've known more than a few folks who had clealry marked pipelines running their subdivision but had no clue.

This isn't a comment. I want to add an item to Drumbeat, but it isn't clear to me how to do it.

So ...

There's an article in today's Le Monde by their Berlin Correspondent, Frédéric Lemaître, with the headline [in French], German Army Predicts the Worst Once Peak Oil is Reached. It tells of a 90-page report which is only the first part of a review of the "environmental dimensions of security."


Looks like it's referencing this article.

There was a key post with an English translation of the key points in the report here.