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.