Sunday, January 27, 2008

Energy Independence - What It Am And What It Ain't

`Energy independence' is one of those buzz word phrases politicians and pundits love.

For lots of people, the idea is that if America produces all it's own energy, we can tell the Ay-Rabs to go ride a camel to wherever and completely disengage from the Middle East. For more serious people, America producing all its own energy is an important step in winning the War on Jihad by ending America's funding of its enemies.

Actually, neither one of these ideas is entirely correct, as far as they go.

Before we discuss why, let me first dispose of the biomass/thermal/solar/wind power/green energy crowd. While all of these technologies work to a greater or lesser degree, the infrastructure simply isn't there at this time to utilize them as major energy sources, and it would take years to build that infrastructure and implement it across the board in our technology. To put it more simply, while solar energy may work great in some parts of the country for heating swimming pools, don't expect to run your car on solar batteries anytime soon. For that matter, even today's hybrid cars ultimately depend on electrical energy..generated using that ol' debbil, Mr. Petroleum.

As for ethanol, sorry, it's simply not the solution either.

Brazil managed to achieve energy independence using ethanol made out of cane sugar,but that was largely successful because can sugar has a higher ethanol output than corn, and because Brazil's energy needs as compared to the US are simply not in the same ballpark. The two countries may be somewhat similar in physical size but the level of population, development, infrastructure and cars on the road couldn't be more different.

In the US, most of our ethanol comes from corn, and frankly it's a political football rather than a solution. According to some estimates, it may take as much as 11 acres of farmland to produce enough ethanol to power a car for one year,and even to produce enough ethanol to meet President Bush's modest goal of manufacturing around 35 billions gallons of ethanol per year would only replace around 15% of our gasoline consumption. And if in fact we reach that goal, you can factor in a major increase in food prices, something you're already starting to see when you go to the market and purchase corn products, meat or poultry.

Even worse, to harvest all that corn and manufacture the ethanol, you need to use - you guessed it, oil, electricity(including fertilizer, much of which is petroleum based) and gasoline. Right now,it costs 1.29 gallons of gas to manufacture a gallon of ethanol...and that's not factoring in any of the other costs!

So we're talking about oil, and probably nuclear power.

Let's ignore the practical problems of energy independence for half a mo' (we'll get back to them) and assume that I just waved a magic wand and made it happen.It would have little or no effect on our enemies waging war on the US, and thus not allow us to disengage from the Middle East in the least.

Here's a few facts to chew on: the biggest funders of jihad worldwide are the Saudis, the UAE and Iran. And guess what...out of these three, only one of them, Saudi Arabia, imports a significant amount of oil to the US, roughly 12% of our total imports. As a matter of fact, the US gets 74% of it's oil imports from countries outside the Middle East, with Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia and Nigeria accounting for over 50% of our total imports.

If we suddenly stopped buying Middle East oil,they would still sell it to India, China or someone else, and Islamism is still going to get funded.In any case, the Saudis and the UAE learned from the oil boom/bust of the 1970's; oil is no longer their whole economic basis,and those petro-billions have been invested in financial instruments and infrastructure around the globe.

So anyone preaching energy independence as a magic cure to our problems with Islamist terrorism and jihad simply doesn't have both oars in the water. Taking a bite of that particular sandwich is going to require choices much more difficult than simply whom we purchase our oil from.

Nevertheless, it would be a positive development and great for the US economy, it would open up some wonderful strategic opportunities if we chose to exercise them...and the fact remains that oil is not in infinite supply, and that's something we had better begin thinking about.

I see us as being in a transitional period here when it comes to energy, and what's really needed is a solution that gets us from where we are now to the point where new energy technology is both feasible and practical and able to be implemented.

The answer, surprisingly, is not some new techno-whiz miracle. Instead, it involves using proven technology and resources we already have.

During WWII, Adolf Hitler and the German military had a major problem: the British Navy had essentially cut off most of Germany's traditional sources of oil and gasoline, and Germany's military and industry were in danger of running dry. What Hitler did was to put his scientists to work on the idea of synthetic oil...and they came through for Der Fuhrer, using a resource Germany had available in the Ruhr, in the Saar and in Silesia, among other places - coal. The Germans perfected the technology of the gasification of coal and kept the Nazis in the war. And that technology still exists today.

Here in the US, we could be said to be the Saudi Arabia of coal, with an estimated 400-600 years worth of supply. And in fact,the US actually created something called the Synthetic Fuels Corporation back in 1980 to refine and streamline this gasification process after the original OPEC oil embargo, and it made significant progress until around 1986. What happened then is that oil prices tanked and made synthetic oil uneconomical to pursue, because it costs around $50 a barrel to manufacture. When oil was at $16 a barrel, it made no sense to continue to produce our own synthetic fuel. Now,with prices nearing $100 per barrel, it does...especially in light of what some of the profits from imported oil sales are being used for, and by whom.

And it also makes sense to start actually building refineries again, something that hasn't been done in the US for over twenty years. Anyone involved with the energy biz who's actually being honest with you will tell you that the bottleneck that causes shortages and price rises mostly occurs at the refining end of things.

Nor is coal the only arrow in our energy independence quiver.

There are millions of potential barrels of shale oil just sitting in the Rockies in the western United States, another potential bonanza for the US economy using already tried and tested technology. There's also nuclear power, something the Europeans and the Japanese embraced after the Arabs turned off the spigot in the 1970's.

Add this to ramping up our domestic production and some basic conservation measures and and the US could achieve energy independence in a remarkably short space of time..certainly within one four-year presidential term. That would buy us the time we need, and then some to develop the new energy technologies for the future. Not to mention a slew of high paid US jobs, a boost for our economy, more oil to sell to other countries and strategic leverage in certain areas where we need it.

So....why haven't we done this? Nothing I'm pointing out here is exactly a deep, dark secret.

The answer, I think, lies in what I like to refer to as the Arab Oil Producers Government Pension Augmentation Plan, where Presidential libraries, honorariums, consulting fees,retainers, investments in certain financial instruments and foundations get paid out by certain cash flush oil producing nations.

Another part of the puzzle lies in the fact that government in general loves the status quo, because higher gas prices mean higher tax revenues. In my native state that means the county, the state and the feds garner about sixty cents plus per gallon in taxes - the higher the price, the more they make.

But the price for continuing this scam is getter larger by the minute, in blood as well as money.

The US can indeed achieve energy independence if we want to, and in a relatively short time. And the sooner we hold our politicians' feet to the fire to make it happen, the better off we'll be.


B.Poster said...

You are spot on here. Everything written in this post is correct. You have said pretty much what I have said in the comment threads here and elsewhere for the last ten years. (I recognized we had a problem with the people we get oil from and from the Middle East long before 911. I just did not realize the severity of the problme.) You have expressed my thoughts much more articulately than I seem to be able to.

Money received from oil producing countries and governments liking the status quo and high taxes definitely plays a large role here, however, I think you left out the biggest impediment to energy independence of all. This is the enviro-whacko groups. Expamples of these are Greem Peace and the Sierra Club. These groups wield more influence than all others combined. Also, they are greatly helped by the fawning praise these groups receive in the media.

Developing synthetic oil out of coal would certainly be helpful. Unfortunately enviro-whackos don't like coal and will likely fight efforts to use this to make oil.

Using shale oil is a great idea, however, enviro-whackos don't like this either. They and their toadys in the media tell us that it destroys the environment. They will likely fight efforts to develop shale oil as well.

I thikk the oil producing countries and the enviro-whackos may be in league together. It would be intereesting to find out where enviro-whackos are getting their funding. I suspect a large portion of it comes from our enemies but I'm not holding my breath waiting for their toadys in the media to do a study on this.

People in the oil business have described to me how hard it is to get a refinery built. Most of the road blocks are put by enviro0whackos.

I think you are largely correct in pointing out that achieving energy independence will not solve our problems with Islamic terrorists but it will deprive them of a significant source of funding and it will give us more leverage when dealing with them.

You suggest that the US could achieve energy independence in a relatively short period of time, perhaps within one four year presidential term. I think this may be a bit optimistic. I'm thinking more like 10 to 15 years, however, I hope you are correct that it could be done in four years. Energy independence in four years would be an ambitious goal but it might be achieveable. Environmental regulations might need to be suspended and Americans would probably need to make some huge sacrifices in life style.

You are definitely correct about holding politicians feet to the fire. I think we should go a step farther. When a politiican pushes for the solutions you call for, I think it is a virtual certainty that the environmental groups and their lackeys in the media will viciously attack them. The politicians need to know that we, the American people, will stand behind them when they are attacked for propsing and/or attempting to implement these solutions.

I think you are among the best bloggers on the internet. You have had many great posts. I think this is one your best posts. Continue the excellent work!!

Freedom Fighter said...

Hi Poster,
And thanks so much for the kind words...

Actually, I think that the oil companies and the Arabs have a lot more clout with certain Democratic senators ( and some GOP ones too, for that matter) who consistently vote against any kind of domestic energy creation than the people you deem `environmental whackos.' Money doesn't talk, it screams.

I might eat these words, but I still think we could be energy self-sufficient in 4 years, 5 tops if we made it a national goal and a priority. There are reasons why we haven't and I've tried to spell them out here.

All Best,

61north said...

I work in the Civil Engineering field and there is no way that the facilities you mention could be constructed and running in 4 years. Mines, power plants, refineries all take at least 4 years to design and build even if there are no hiccups in the process. One or two thorny environmental issues and the process could easily stretch out to 10 years.

Design for such a large facility typically takes 2-3 years and construction takes about as long.

I agree we should be moving toward energy independence as fast as we can, but just realize that this will likely take a generation and could take longer as the fat-cat politicians in both parties drag their feet.

Freedom Fighter said...

Hi North,
Thanks for dropping by, and for the professional input.

Most of the mines already exist. I agree that nuclear power plants and refineries can take years, and in fact none have been built in quite some time, but I qualified this by saying it would take four to five years if we made it a national priority.

You yourself cites a build time of 4-6 years if there are no `hiccups', as you put it.

The foot dragging and nonsense you're referring to takes place because most of our politicians don't want to make energy self-sufficiency a national priority.

And I believe I've spelled out some pretty obvious reasons why.

At least in Alaska where you live, the state gives its residents back a little sliver of the pie every year....

Thanks again for dropping by.

All Best,


Rosey said...

Methanol is expensive because farm subsidies keep the price of imported sugar high to support beet farmers (in Texas!) About $0.04 / lb. For something that trades around $0.12, that’s a lot.

The Diesel engine, was originally designed to run on vegetable oil. It wouldn’t take much to run trucks & city buses, for example, on refined oil from McDonald’s discards. Something like a 10% reduction in crude usage could really drag down prices.

There’s a lot of oil in Canada’s oil sands…

Heartily agree on the refining bottle neck and effects of the tree huggers.

Of course once the global economy slows down, and the dollar comes out of the toilet, we could see $40-$50 oil again and all this independence stuff will go out the window…

Freedom Fighter said...

Hi Rosie,
Actually the Alberta oil sands are what make Canada our number 1 source of imported oil.

I'm not sure we'll see $40-50 oil again - at least unless there's significant progress on Americanenergy creation and OPEC decides to undercut the competition!

All best,

Fritz J. said...

FF, I agree with most of what you say. My only point of disagreement is that if the U.S embarked upon a course and achieved energy independence, there would be an effect upon terrorism funding ability for the simple reason that it would drive down the price of oil. Not sure how much effect that would have, but it should have some effect on such countries as Iran and Saudi Arabia because of the reduced money flowing into their coffers. However, by achieving energy independence I don't mean simply changing where we buy oil, but rather that we come up with solutions which make us truly energy independent from the rest of the world. Simply changing where we buy our oil will have no effect on world prices because if we stop buying from Saudi Arabia and buy from other countries, that does nothing to world prices. If we come up with solutions which produce our own oil or an acceptable substitute, that would lower demand for oil exports and hence cause a drop in world prices. If it was only a minor drop there would likely not be much effect on terrorist funding, but a major drop should reduce such funding to some extent, and if you removed the United States as in importer of oil that would make a significant dent in world markets.

I would add that Brazil achieved its energy independence not only through its ethanol programs, but also through its discovery of more oil. Also, coal gasification produces methanol rather than ethanol, so we would need slight modifications to our cars in order to handle the different properties of methanol.

As an aside, Rudolph Diesel actually attempted to develop an engine which operated on coal dust, but could not solve the problem of the coal dust plugging the injectors and eventually switched to peanut oil. And while he is generally credited with developing the compression ignited engine, there were others who preceded him. Diesel was simply the first one who managed to make a successful compression ignited engine.

You are dead right that we could achieve energy independence in a relatively short while if we had the will to do so, but as long as our congress critters can hand out dollars to constituents in such silly projects as our current ethanol programs we will not achieve it. Between the environmentalists and the farm lobby the politicians get too much money. Every time I hear those idiots talking about ethanol I get sick. It is not that ethanol can't play a small part, but it can only play a small part in the overall energy picture. For politicians to hold it up as a magic panacea for our energy problems shows them either stupid or disingenuous.

David said...

"even today's hybrid cars ultimately depend on electrical energy..generated using that ol' debbil, Mr. Petroleum"...actually, very little U.S. electricity is generated from oil--the primary fuels are natural gas and coal, with hydro and nuclear playing supporting roles.

It's becoming very difficult to build new coal plants--this, combined with the continuing prejudice against nuclear, will drive a higher % of generation to nat gas. And when we hit the wall on nat gas production, watch out!...because nat gas is much harder to import than oil.

Freedom Fighter said...

Hi David, Thanks for dropping by.

Petroleum in the form of gasoline is what powers the hydro generators and the turbines in the electrical plants. Gasoline is also needed to mine and ship the the coal and extract the natural gas.

And while we have a fair amont of natural gas here,I agree with you that importing it is tons more difficult and dangerous than importing oil.

Also, gasification of coal and the refining of shale oil are much more environmentally friendly processes than they once were, and like nuclear power suffer a bad rap.

But I actually think there's more to the prejudice against coal plants, building refineries and using nuclear power than meets the eye.

I think the hidden factor is money from the Arabs and the oil companies that probably ends up in the pockets of a great many congressmen known as `envirommentalists'.

All Best,