The prodigal sons…and daughters

The clamor for SOMEBODY to do something about rising gas prices continues, particularly the election-season pressure from various lobbyists to persuade Congress and whomever is elected President to open up offshore drilling for oil. In my previous blog I commented on the likelihood of such a move to have any short term effect whatsoever. Now it’s time to consider the broader issue: is this move really necessary or desirable at all?

First a short review of history. The United States owes part of its economic success to the fact that abundant supplies of petroleum were discovered and exploited here. Petroleum trumped whale oil and became the fundamental source of energy for the transportation industry. That, in turn, was a major component of the rise in America’s fortunes. But production of oil in the US peaked in the early 1970s; new discoveries have not exceeded production since then. The US oil glass is more than half empty and the level of its contents is dropping. Consequently, we are now importing more oil than we produce domestically. In June 2008 two-thirds of our oil was imported, according to the Energy Information Administration. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, consumes 25% of its energy.

So now the popular plan is to expand our offshore drilling so that we can use up our native supplies faster, right? The latest idea is to use up all our oil resources as fast as we can so that we can be thrall to the likes of Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria and the various middle-eastern powers as soon as possible? Just because we don’t want to pay $4+ per gallon of gas? Do you get the feeling that something is not right here? We are the world’s prodigals* and we want to keep it that way? Worse: the rest of the world wants to be just like us?

Continue reading The prodigal sons…and daughters

It’s the dynamics, stupid!

Here’s one of the key problems in the debate about energy and global warming. Many, if not most, of the commentators are ignoring the dynamics of global change. The fundamental issue is that global climate change and global energy use are massive, huge, enormous–whatever ultimate adjectives you can think of. And what is a prime characteristic of massive, huge, enormous things?

It is very hard to change their courses. They have enormous inertia. As Isaac Newton said in the 17th century about the dynamics of motion (Newton’s First Law):  Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. In the case of global warming the human race has steadily been forcing the atmosphere to change since the Industrial Revolution. The warming force is the heat retained as a result of the CO2 and methane we have been pouring into the air all those years. As we are beginning to notice, the atmosphere is now moving right along, heatwise. Atmospheric change now has substantial momentum, according to most knowledgeable environmental scientists, although they differ on the extent of human influence.

As Paul Krugman put in in his New York Times column on 1 August 2008:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Now here’s the dilemma: Continue reading It’s the dynamics, stupid!

Tipping point?

In an article in the 24 May 2008 Los Angeles Times Ford CEO Alan Mulally is quoted as saying that the automobile industry has “reached a tipping point” because of rising oil prices; a point that will fundamentally change the kinds of vehicles that consumers will buy. A similar article in the 24 May Financial Times describes a plan to drastically lower the emissions from cars in Europe. Specifically, “The average new car sold in the European Union in 2020 will have to use less fuel than almost all conventional models on the road today”.

Hello? Where has the industry been for the past three decades? After more than 30 years of complacency after the oil shock of 1973 the industry is suddenly panicked by the thought that we might actually be running out of oil and that oil prices will surely rise as the remaining oil is more expensively extracted. The triple whammy of oil depletion, increased competition from China and India, and global warming has indeed caught the world’s attention recently. Both of the articles cited above emphasize the changes in the mix of vehicles bought, not to mention the cars and trucks that are suddenly hard to sell.

Add to those woes the economic slowdown, the Cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China. It never rains but it pours. What to do.

Continue reading Tipping point?