What You Should Think About Energy Independence

August 18, 2008

“If money is your hope for independence you will never have it.  The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.”

–Henry Ford

Ten years ago, the few Americans readily able to associate a concept with the phrase “energy independence” tended toward a consensus that its pursuit was a bad idea.  Energy imports were a path of least resistance sure to make the economy more efficient in the short term, and other considerations were quickly discarded.  Today many Americans contemplate issues that were once the province of academic specialists.  Today many Americans are willing to judge choices by an outlook that goes beyond the short term.

This is excellent.  In my opinion, only a great party or a terminal illness justifies failure to incorporate some sort of long term perspective into one’s thinking.  It is never responsible to look at the national economy as a great party, and it is absurdly melodramatic to look at climate change as a terminal illness.  This leaves us with a real need to look at both . . . look at them long and hard.

All the economic trends favor sweeping and swift change.  Oil prices have sustained a multiple of their peak from the 20th century.  Political responses to atmospheric carbon emissions remain undefined and shamefully belated, but they now seem inevitable.  As if those indicators were not clear enough, the American car buyer is increasingly inclined to favor smaller more efficient vehicles over uselessly large SUVs and their accompanying fuel demands.  In a sense, petrochemicals are simply going out of style.

Yet beneath the trends remain many complex problems.  Most obvious is the delay between a national committment to a new energy policy and the saturation of new technologies in the real economy.  More subtle is the role oil plays outside of combustion reactions.  Byproducts of fuel production are a primary source of raw materials for the plastics industry.  A staggering array of household chemicals also have their roots in the fractional distillation processes taking place at oil refineries.  Even if we could do without gasoline, could we also do without sandwich baggies, paint thinner, and dozens of other ubiquitous items?

I believe both major party Presidential candidates have observed aloud that the oil trade causes our nation to send large sums of money to parts of the world where “people don’t like us very much.”  To me, this says that we ought to work on our image.  To many, it seems to say that we ought to stop buying oil outright.  I suspect those views would change as the matter is examined in more detail.  Given a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $750 billion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and I suspect most Americans would endorse energy independence.  Put forth a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $2 trillion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and suddenly the price tag becomes much harder to justify.

The sticky bit here is that no honest individual can claim a high degree of confidence in pinning down the real numbers.  The science is in on climate change as an ongoing and economically devastating phenomenon.  However, the precise nature and extent of that devastation cannot even be confined to a particular order of magnitude.  Perhaps longer growing seasons will soften the impact of regional famines and expanding deserts, while transpolar shipping partially offsets losses in coastal real estate.  Then again, perhaps the Pentagon was right and global warming will be the driving force behind a new age of savagery and desperation in modern warfare.

Even if some omniscient entity were to spell out the real annual costs of climate change if status quo policies continue indefinitely, humanity would remain in the dark about the extent to which change could mitigate these harms.  Some of the damage has already been done.  Some will result from processes too far along to be stopped.  Much could be minimized or averted, but just how much?  Even for the most informed experts, ultimately it is a matter of opinion just how much economic value ought be placed on various levels of industrial emission restraint.

Also, the monetary cost of petrochemical dependence today is clearly an aberration.  Fundamental forces, like the growth of the Chinese economy, create an upward pressure on oil prices.  From a vantage point in the United States, the plunge of the dollar exaggerates import inflation.  Yet the behavior of those prices does not reflect the realities of those forces.  The real rise in the cost of this particular commodity is clearly a function of market manipulation rather than a reflection of an entirely real, but much more gradual, trend upward.  Alternative energy ventures risk having the economic rug yanked out from under them if business models marginally sustainable under present price levels must contend with much cheaper oil in the near future.

“Energy independence” has a nice sound to it.  As a principle, there is no good reason to oppose it.  Elements of any sound energy independence plan are good in practice.  Take conservation — whenever you can consume less to get the same result, scarcity is alleviated and economic conditions improve.  Research is another good example.  Our society could reach a fairly high multiple of present levels of investment in fields like theoretical physics, miniaturization, solar energy, etc. before diminishing returns would make further spending unrewarding over the long term.  Bold actions that effectively promote efficiency or discovery are entirely appropriate responses to present conditions.

On the other hand, a rush to abandon old ways could prove as costly as the inept dithering we have experienced under the sitting President’s guidance.  Imagine a huge national investment in traditional nuclear power plants is only just completed when the latest and greatest supercollider reveals a much safer and less costly method of generating nuclear power.  The United States would be hamstrung by this committment to old technology while other societies remain poised to fully capitalize on scientific achievement.  That scenario is speculative, but it is far from a worst case scenario.

President Jimmy Carter once helped guide this nation onto a course toward efficient renewable energy technology and national energy independence.  His successor promptly undid much of that work.  Many noble projects, including numerous growing businesses, were wrecked by the double whammy of falling energy prices and rescinded federal subsidies.  A long term outlook must not only consider the challenges of unresolved technology gaps, but also the pitfalls of failure to provide any new paradigm with long term support.

In the abstract, I believe trade is a good thing.  Imports and exports brings distant peoples closer together.  When conducted fairly, trade makes life better for everyone involved.  For all its rhetorical appeal, “energy independence” is nothing more than a state of doing without imports in the energy sector.  In some contexts, it offers a way to rally support for genuinely useful initiatives like raising fuel efficiency standards or funding alternative energy research.  Yet it may also distract from important priorities like addressing climate change or optimizing economic efficiency.

Energy independence itself is no big deal.  However, it intersects with several issues that are each very big deals in their own right.  To the degree that a proposed plan or policy may make our nation more economically productive, less ecologically destructive, more technologically advanced, and/or less heavily involved in resource depletion, it is likely to be a good thing.  If actual energy independence is a side effect of those gains, so be it.  The danger lies in the prospect that none of those gains will be realized even as energy independence is pursued with tremendous national zeal.

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What You Should Think About Oil Prices

November 18, 2007

“Time destroys the speculation of men, but it confirms nature.”

–Cicero

When expressing hostility toward the Carter administration, critics often fault the former President for poor economic conditions, with particular emphasis on high oil prices, that he left behind after losing the 1980 election. Since most of this hostility comes from devout political partisans, it is hard to imagine how they will rationalize a strikingly parallel scenario unfolding as the second Bush administration comes to an end.

At least in Jimmy Carter’s case, the machinations of OPEC and a largely unjustified surge of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East could be blamed. Today, supply throttling by OPEC is virtually a non-issue, and there is the matter of tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians (among other things) to justify strong anti-American sentiment throughout much of the Middle East. Even so, this phenomenon clearly has its roots in something much bigger than inept American leadership transforming a long-standing culture clash into a seething pit of perpetual warfare.

Clearly there are many factors driving the price of oil to new heights. Perhaps foremost among them are concerns about the prospect of a war between the U.S. and Iran. It is no secret that the same folks who brought us the current Iraq policy are drooling at the prospect of violence against Iran. The problem is that, while the world community united in the 1990s to ban Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction, Iran is a sovereign nation that has not violated the territory of any other nation since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s (itself a direct result of Saddam Hussein’s attempted invasion of Iran.)

The United Nations Security Council may be able to agree that Iranian nuclear weapons are a bad idea in principle, but in practice taking action against such a program involves setting a dangerous new precedent in which military aggression by powerful nations is permitted for no reason other than the crudest possible approach to preventing nuclear proliferation. The idea that the government of Iran would provide nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations is (as with much of the public rationale for war in Iraq) bogus on its face. Yet that misinformation is, in some circles, a more popular idea than the notion that military aggression to destroy foreign nuclear facilities would push future nuclear research so deeply into realms of secrecy that it would become much more vulnerable to abuse by madmen.

Yet the price of oil is as much influenced by Iranian leverage as American belligerence. Iran controls a great deal of coastline along the Persian Gulf. A hostile Iran has a range of options including rocket attacks on outbound oil tankers and rendering the Strait of Hormuz extremely perilous to navigate. Among other things, such an action would put a serious restriction on Iraq’s already troubled capacity to get oil to consumers abroad. Whether the U.S. backs off on pressures to let American corporations control Iraq’s most valuable natural resource or those pressures somehow wind up producing results, none of it will matter if the oil cannot be floated safely to markets abroad.

What all this means is that every time the President and his associates say something profoundly ignorant about World War III, they also say something that is certain to intensify the speculation driving up oil prices at present. This is certainly a key consideration — the current price of oil is as much a reflection of investors’ willingness to bet on even more extreme instability in the Middle East as it has anything to do with supply and demand. The more opportunists see a chance to make a fast buck by speculating on further increases in the price of oil, the more that price will continue to climb without regard for underlying realities.

Of course, the underlying realities are no cause to dance a jig. Decades of vigorous consumption have put an end to most of the “low hanging fruit” in petroleum economics. The world’s reserves are still enormous, but they are increasingly remote and increasingly difficult to process into useful fuel. These complications of supply are paired with increasing demand. The United States under President Bush has made a habit of forfeiting opportunities to engage with China and other rapidly growing economies in pursuit of global accords that might conserve resources or hasten the rise of alternative energy enterprises.

This means that there are real fundamentals driving oil prices higher. This also happens in the context of real fundamentals driving the value of the dollar lower. Years of poor economic stewardship and even poorer foreign policy have changed financial realities within the United states while radically transforming public perceptions abroad. Once unquestioned in its reliability, the greenback is no longer the Old Faithful of international currencies. Toothless government oversight of American capital markets (with mortgage debt resale being the tip of the proverbial iceberg) shakes confidence on one level while years of nonsensical proclamations and actions from the White House rattle a different set of analysts.

A view I find myself on the fence about is that the war in Iraq was really all about the petrodollar. Equal parts sensible analysis and kooky conspiracy theory, it holds that the real reason for all that violence was that Saddam Hussein was on the brink of orchestrating a Middle Eastern oil market that pegged prices to euros rather than dollars. There is much more evidence the Iraqi regime had such a plan in the works than there ever was evidence that they were developing weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, wouldn’t launching a profoundly ill-advised war do at least as much damage to the world’s faith in American stability as any new commodities exchange ever could?

Fortunately, there are many factors that could bring the price of oil down, or at least seriously restrain its ascent. If saner heads prevail before a U.S. attack on Iran occurs, speculation based on the likelihood of that conflict will have been in error. Astute observers of world events are also suggesting that China may go green of its own volition — the waking dragon may simply skip a filthy phase of industrial development and strive for a leadership position in the realm of economic sustainability. Then there is also the prospect that, one way or another, chaos in Iraq will subside and Iraqi oil fields will produce a noteworthy surge in supply.

As with so many other geopolitical issues, the price of oil is clearly influenced by a range of complex factors. Yet for years now, conventional wisdom among speculative investors has held that “the smart money” is on increases. It is fair to question if the latest wave of increases would have happened at all if not for the scandalous losses and shameless deceptions major American financial institutions have sustained from abuse of an underregulated capital markets. If the Bush administration is able to go forward with aspirations of unilateral military aggression against Iran, then I believe the sky is the limit on the price of oil.

Yet in the absence of such a disaster, it seems increasingly likely that this conventional wisdom is a suckers’ bet. In spite of all the valid pressures pushing the price of oil upward, rampant speculation means that this price is overdue for a serious correction. Even if the coming winter is harsh in New England or OPEC should decide to play their strong hand with deliberate slowness, tremendous pessimism is already factored into the current price. The world would have to become screwed up in some additional, severe, and unexpected way for those soaring numbers to continue such a steep climb.


What You Should Think About Nuclear Energy

October 9, 2007

For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.”

–George Monbiot

Born into the 70s, making my first efforts to comprehend “the grown up world” in the 80s, my earliest perceptions of atomic power were shaped by a blend of rosy corporate propaganda and bleak doomsday dramatizations. By the time I was ready for my first political debate, concepts like “control rods” and “implosion triggers” were already familiar to me. Even setting environmental risks aside, my teenaged self could not break associations between constructive and destructive applications unleashed by discoveries in nuclear physics.

As time advanced, so did my views. Much more importantly, scientific understanding has advanced as well. Today the world finds itself in an interesting place vis-à-vis nuclear energy production. It was not so long ago that consensus views favored “cheaper” alternatives. Yet resource depletion, soot production, and greenhouse gas emission are all real costs associated with fossil fuel consumption. A market that demands one industry protect the public commons while making no similar demands of others may indeed place alternatives to nuclear power at a lower price per unit. Yet a more circumspect analysis reveals that polluting enterprises ultimately exact their true price one way or another — whether or not it is reflected in utility bills.

To be sure, nuclear power poses pollution concerns of its own. Chernobyl is now a household word precisely because of the extreme dangers associated with radioactive contamination. Heck, even thermal pollution is an issue with nuclear power. Clearly any sensible nuclear power program demands stringent and redundant oversight. Operating with a flawed design or sloppy management practices creates a very real risk that no nation should tolerate.

Also, there is the security issue. Yet that is an issue that cuts both ways. Every additional nuclear facility is a new target for terrorists intent on stealing material for radiological attacks or even staging a deliberate environmental disaster. On the other hand, every additional petrochemical facility drives up demand for a commodity that is partially under the control of aristocrats involved with promoting religious fundamentalism and financing terrorist organizations. This would seem to suggest the American energy sector should be heavily invested in alternatives to either approach.

Yet those alternatives, as they exist today, fall short. Nature offers up light, wind, water, and earth all as methods of collecting energy from sources that renew themselves. In time the yields and costs of solar arrays may improve to the point where that approach would merit a place as a mainstay of American energy. Yet just when that time will occur is unknown. Windmills, tide mills, and dams are only appropriate in locations that satisfy specific conditions. Surprisingly enough, geothermal resources can be depleted by overuse, and they also depend on an appropriate site to achieve commercial yields.

As demand for fossil fuel resources rises and awareness grows of the hidden costs associated with burning ancient carbon compounds, nuclear power provides an alternative with generating capacity independent of local natural features. At the very least, it merits consideration as a supplement for meeting demands when clouds or calm or cooling produce shortfalls from other methods. Given responsible government oversight (a legitimate worry if pursued under the present administration,) nuclear power has the potential to bridge the gap between what we can harness from natural forces and what is required to sustain economic progress.

Yet nuclear power also offers much potential for innovation. Nuclear fusion research has yet to produce anything like a device for generating more energy than it requires, but new approaches do hold some promise. Decades ago, the scientific establishment abandoned the idea that an intersection of powerful laser beams could be used to contain the intense pressure generated by fusion reactions. A new approach, less like a turbine engine and more like a piston engine, might make it possible to sustain serial bursts of fusion reaction with lasers only active for the briefest of instants. The dramatic reduction in energy cost is just one of several innovations that could pave the way for productive fusion power plants.

Then there is the prospect of breakthroughs in fission as well. European scientists are developing precursor technology with an eye toward constructing energy amplifiers. The concept involves using a powerful particle accelerator to outright disintegrate nuclear fuel. It would require elaborate facilities, but it offers many advantages. Energy amplifiers are “subcritical” nuclear reactors, meaning that they can produce power from reaction masses that are not susceptible to meltdown in the event of unexpected technical problems. They can be used to safely destroy dangerous nuclear materials produced by conventional fission reactors. This includes the world’s stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium. Also, they can derive power from thorium — a substance both much less radioactive and much more abundant than traditional nuclear fuels.

Of course, scientific breakthroughs are unexpected by nature. Low cost, high yield solar panels may emerge at some point in the future. Also, there is plenty of ground to be gained by applying energy conservation to building and product design. Society does well to invest in any avenue of progress that might address a mounting crises related to energy demands and existing fuel supplies. Yet without having already achieved such progress, we have no choice but to make due with what we have.

Considering the overwhelming mix of security and environmental concerns, giving private corporations broad latitude to expand America’s nuclear power industry seems like unacceptably risky business. Yet only politics obstructs the pursuit of a nationalized atomic energy industry that serves the common good while benefiting from tight controls that no nuclear facility should be without. As with other public sector enterprises, free markets and innovation could continue to play vital roles in areas ranging from component manufacturing to facility maintenance.

Personally, I’ve long questioned the merits of letting the whims of profit-seekers create turbulence in a key sector that serves as a foundation on which almost all other economic activity must rest. Entities like Enron operated contrary to the national interest not only because they were managed by dishonest crooks, but also because it was their business to seek profits through playing games with energy itself. When it becomes possible to generate revenue by deliberately choking off the economic lifeblood of a region, clearly a failed paradigm is in place.

Yet it is not my intent, today, to argue for the nationalization of the entire energy sector. Instead it is my contention that only in the context of nationalization can we expect the safest and best results from massive expansion of America’s nuclear power industry. Without the need for any technology yet to be discovered, that context makes it possible to safely generate energy enough to satisfy the needs of a large economy that (hopefully) will continue to grow through the years ahead. Given that numerous problems caused by fossil fuel consumption are already bad and likely to get even worse, I don’t believe it takes a visionary like Albert Einstein to point out that we would do well to make greater use of our capacity to split the atom for peaceful purposes.