Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Conservation of Energy


Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, published an interesting article on CERA’s website. The whole piece is worth a close read. His basic point is that we’re not running out of oil anytime soon because of technology’s advancing ability to aide our effort in finding and extracting petroleum. The most interesting points to me, however, regard the sociological corollaries of, and public perception of, energy policies:

    This is not the first time that the world has "run out of oil." It's more like the fifth. Cycles of shortage and surplus characterize the entire history of the oil industry. A similar fear of shortage after World War I was one of the main drivers for cobbling together the three easternmost provinces of the defunct Ottoman Turkish Empire to create Iraq. In more recent times, the "permanent oil shortage" of the 1970s gave way to the glut and price collapse of the 1980s.
This certainly adds to the discussion of social and psychological effects on history. The way I see it, the two basic camps in American politics are on conflicting emotional missions to turn their differing obsessions with catastrophe in to accepted reality. The first idea, championed by the Left and which has gained momentum since the 1960’s, is that the destruction of the environment, caused by consumption of fossil fuels, is going to kill us all. The second idea, championed by the Right, which has entered the national consciousness since 2001, is that psychotic fanatics will use horrific weapons, which we have produced to protect ourselves, to destroy humanity.

Can the doomsday scenario of environmental destruction be definitively proven? Of course not. No matter what we learn about geology, climatology, meteorology, astronomy, etc., we still don’t know very much. I find any “definitive” opinion regarding global warming, especially regarding induction by human action, to be highly speculative. Are we so arrogant as to think that we know exactly how the earth’s climate works? It wasn’t that long ago, in the scope of human history, that the germ theory of disease became fact. Nor was it that long ago that we were convinced that the earth was flat.

Can the doomsday scenario of psychos with nukes, be definitively proven? Of course not. But whether or not it occurs can definitively be determined by the actions we take to protect ourselves. And given the current highly-charged political/religous situation we find ourselves in, I find it to be a likely scenario.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that both scenarios, environmental destruction and psychos with nukes, are realistically plausible. Giant comets and asteroids not withstanding, macro-scale climate change happens on a pace that is so slow that it is practically imperceptible at the time it is happening. Furthermore, Michael Bay, Bruce Willis and Steve Buscemi not withstanding, there’s nothing we can do to prevent the collision of planetary bodies. Rogue thermonuclear explosions, on the other hand, vaporize matter in milliseconds. Which of these should we, or can we, take action to prevent right now?

It would seem to me that, given this reason alone, changes in energy policy shouldn’t get as much attention as defeating Militant Islamicists. But somehow the Left doesn’t seem to inhabit the same universe as I. Perhaps it is because Leftist energy policy has more to do with implementing social change than it does with preventing climate change.

And yet, someday, but not for a very long time, petroleum will cease to be a viable energy source. The concept of energy independence makes a great deal of sense. Not only that, but continuing to be handcuffed to despotic, oppressive and oil-flush regimes is not smart. It’s much easier to negotiate, or walk away from the table, when you aren’t beholden to the other party.

So in addition to finding our own sources of petroleum as soon as possible, we should begin implementing sustainable sources of energy as soon as possible. Solar-based energy (photovoltaics) will be plentiful as long as plants survive using photosynthesis. However, current technology is very inefficient – it only takes advantage of a small percentage of the sun’s total light/energy output and it has a poor cost/benefit ratio in climates where natural sunlight is not plentiful. Wind power is plentiful as long as the lower atmosphere stays dynamic, but it is inconsistent and is not conducive to avian wildlife. Fuel cell technology is clean and powerful, but extraction of hydrogen still takes more energy. Nuclear power is reliable and stable, but has long-term toxic side-effects. Yet I still consider these (and others) to be viable energy options.

By all means, let’s use our ingenuity to explore and implement these technologies. The best role that government can play is by providing tax incentives for implementation rather than tax increases for lack of implementation.

Petroleum as an energy source is far from ideal. But the worldwide economy is based upon it. Economies don’t do well with short-term corrective actions. But as our planetary ecosystem reminds us, long-term, measured and responsible change is change for the better. In the meantime, I’ll be saving up for that Highlander Hybrid.

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