Sunday, August 28, 2005

Katrina causing Oil Shockwave

Wow - this is just like what I saw at the Oil Shockwave exercise a couple of weeks ago in Torrance, California. A single event can affect oil prices in dramatic ways. Katrina has just sent oil to $70/barrel, up from $65 just a few days ago. This Reuters report from Sydney describes "Monday's" trading prices:
The U.S. Gulf of Mexico normally pumps about 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude, a quarter of domestic output and equivalent to nearly 2 percent of global oil production.

"This is certainly reminiscent of Ivan last year," said David Thurtell, commodity strategist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

"We can expect two months of lost production, and coming in the peak demand period this is the worst possible news. The only way we can avoid yet higher prices is if President Bush releases supply from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve."
Whoa there, just a minute. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, called the "SPRO," should really be saved for true emergencies that are provably short term. We won't know until the storm has passed whether there has been long term damage. The SPRO holds 700 million barrels of oil. That may sound like a lot. But consider that Americans consume a little over 20 million barrels of oil a day, and you'll see that he SPRO is indeed a very limited resource. I think the use of the word "strategic" in its title is misleading. It's really just a stop-gap measure for short term issues - hardly a strategic supply.

More disturbing to me, however, is how the SPRO has been misunderstood. I met a right-winger recently who told me we shouldn't worry about oil because we had these huge reserves. I didn't have the facts at hand to tell him just how limited those reserves are.

Right now, 97% of all tranportation in America relies on oil. So isn't it time to revisit the issue of electric cars? Non-polluting vehicles that could conceivably draw power from non-polluting sources (solar and wind, thermal and tidal, among others)?

In the 1990s, California threatened to require zero-emission vehicles, and Ford and GM started producing small quantities of highly efficient and zero-emission electric cars. Ford even had an electric pickup truck.

But people worried that plugging in a car to recharge it each night might be tedious and something readily forgotten. Many had visions of being stalled on the road with no recharging station in site. But we've all made mistakes that we learned from, mistakes we never repeated. One day without your car and you'd learn a new habit in a hurry.

So what happened to these electric vehicles? Ford and GM tried to recall the leased cars, saying they could not support them. Ford electric pickup owners staged a successful revolt and Ford agreed to sell the owners their cars. GM, however, worried about liability of a vehicle they were not planning to support, insisted owners return the cars and hauled them off to be crushed.

Over a 100 years ago, in 1900, for Century Magazine, Serbian-American Nikola Tesla warned of the need to harness renewable sources of energy, and the two he pointed to as the easiest to harness are the ones that to this day show the most promise: solar power and wind power. The future demands we give up our oil addiction and invest in alternative energy sources, and especially, as Tesla so presciently admonished us, not to look for a new depletable resource but to develop energy from inexhaustible resources. His other ideas included generating energy from the heat differentiation in water in the ocean, using the warmer and cooler temperatures to generate electricity. He also talked of solving the issue of gravity once and for all, building a horizontal disk, and shielding half of it from gravity, causing the still-affected half to rotate the disk.

Tesla's most interesting idea, to me, was the notion of not just generating electricity from natural sources, but distributing it without wires. Many computer users are familiar with the wireless transmission of data. But Tesla succeeded, on a limited basis, of deploying not just information but energy itself wirelessly. He transmitted energy from one point in NewYork City to another, and during his Colorado period, he transmitted energy through the earth to a point several miles away. If J. P. Morgan had not pulled funding on Telsa's electrical transmission tower at Wardenclyffe , people today might not have to fear recharging their cars. The energy needed could have been made continuously available through the ground, through the atmosphere, through the air. Tesla envisioned airplanes powered from electricity generated on the ground and transmitted wirelessly to the sky.

Clearly, Tesla's plans were dangerous to the growing oil barons who were getting fat on a very measurable (but very depletable) energy source. What might the world be like if vision and the sense of the common good held more sway in our culture than greed and wealth?

When you look at the fact that 67% of the world's known oil reserves are in the Middle East, you know all you need to know about why we really waged war in Iraq. And that's tragic. Because we're fighting a losing battle. We're making fresh new enemies over a resource that won't be around much longer anyway. Why not spend that money instead developing new, renewable forms of energy? Think of the money the military would save if they had a fleet of vehicles not tied to the rising price of oil.

We need fewer dinosaur minds and more minds like Tesla's to help us forge a reliable energy future. It's already very late in that game, and we need to get cracking. Hurricanes will be with us forever. We shouldn't have an energy economy so fragile as to be affected by them.

P.S. Good luck, New Orleanians. I feel for the poor, the elderly, the feeble who are unable to escape the coming onslaught. You are in my thoughts and prayers tonight.


Blogger Real History Lisa said...

People responded to this in a crosspost elsewhere saying electric cars aren't the solution because the electricity come from the burning of coal and oil. Yes, electricity is not yet, for the most part, clean energy or oil-less energy. And I admit to being frightened by the fact that while windpower is safe, renewable, and clean, it also only accounts for 1% of our electricity and is projected by the American Wind Energy Asssociation to go only as high as 6% by 2020. That's not nearly good enough for our pressing needs. Water power provides about 6% as well.

According to the U.S.Department of Energy, biomass accounts for 47% of renewable energy, and 4% of total US produced energy. Former CIA Director James Woolsey recommended cars driven by biomass, and not ethanol or fuels produced by much-needed food crops, but by prairie grasses and waste products - easily renewable sources.

I'll address the hydrogen fuel cell issues in a future post. That's a technology that presents an interesting possibility, but I'm not entirely sold on that yet. And building the infrastructure to deliver the needed compressed natural gas required will be slow and costly....

4:28 AM  

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