Sunday, February 26, 2012

2002 plus ten years would be...Oh, right.

At this point, the lowest price for gas I have seen is about $3.67 for a gallon of regular unleaded. Fortunately I managed to get a fairly reliable Dodge Neon that pulls around 30 miles/gallon, so I can still get to work without getting further into the hole. Of course, prices are projected upwards of $4.00 a gallon by Memorial Day, maybe $5.00 over the summer. And of course this is now a political football.

I have to point something out at this point. I am not what you would call an environmentalist, but I would call myself a conservationist. Perhaps it is a distinction without a difference, but the two terms are so loaded with connotations, clarification is needed. I employ the term environmentalist to refer to the crunchy granola crowd, those who view human beings as little better than a virus, who view the Gaia hypothesis as real science, and who, as my brother-in-law once experienced, wondered aloud why anyone would bring more human beings in this world by having children (my one question for those of that opinion, why don't you do your part for the environment and achieve true zero-carbon-emissions status? Eat a gun, buttercup, and be consistent.). I am not one of those.

I use the term conservationist to describe someone who views nature as a resource to be preserved in as pristine a status as possible, to be used, when needed, wisely with an eye to husbanding those resources for further generations, and ultimately, someone who understands the role of mankind as to act as vicegerents for God on earth, to use the authority given to shepherd the natural world, and ultimately to be responsible to God for how we have carried out our duties.

Honestly, we're not doing that well. If this were God's apartment that He sublet to us for the summer, it looks like we've been holding a kegger since June.

What does that have to do with oil? Quite a bit. It is a natural resource, one that can be used to make many important and useful things, such as the computer you are using to read this. And fertilizers that helped to grow the food that you have eaten. And the makeup you were wearing today (hopefully, the you I am addressing are a woman. If not...dude, really?). And the energy that you are using up to read this post on your petroleum product based computer. You get the idea. If there is a resource that is more tied to the fortunes of the 21st century world, I would be hard pressed to think of it.

There are still abundant sources of this resource to be found, but at varying environmental and financial costs, but they are available. The question is, what would it take to get them? When gas was a quarter a gallon, it wasn't cost effective to find some of this oil. Now that we're approaching $5, the numbers work out differently. Obviously, what is needed is a sound energy policy.

Enter the politicians.

So much for sound policy.

The Republicans are for "drill now, drill everywhere". There is a point, the more oil on the market, the lower the costs. But again, at what cost? For the religiously based conservative, I'd recommend another look at the book of Genesis, where Adam is given his commission. We still have to answer to God.

The President, for his part, has offered up plans for investing in "green technology" which will provide limitless energy without adding to global warming. There are a few problems, so far.

The first has to do with the fact that much of the technology is years away from being effective. Many companies survive because of the influx of venture capital (you remember that 1%? This is one thing they do with the obscene amounts of money they have. They invest it. Occupy that). Many don't. So we are years away from the point where "green energy" will make up a substantial portion of our energy needs.

But we shouldn't abandon research.

As a conservationist, it seems only logical that we make the most of the resources we have at hand, and harm the environment as little as possible. If we have the technology to produce the needed electricity to keep the lights lit and hospitals, schools and prisons up and running without using fossil fuels, fantastic. If we need to use fossil fuels, let's make the most efficient use possible.

The problem with both plans above is their lack of practicality. Whenever you make plans, you should plan for short term, mid-term and long-term goals. Short term, increase production of oil. Mid-term, make the processes that use fossil fuels as clean and efficient as possible. Long-term, clean, reliable, affordable renewable energy.

It makes sense, and that is why we're not doing it.

Do you remember back the the first term of George W. Bush? The debate turned on the use of the huge amounts of oil at ANWR. One criticism offered was that, even if work were to start that very day, it would be 10 years before we would see any oil.

That was in 2002. Wow. Imagine having an influx of new oil for the market, coming from an American producer.

If we were to add that to the Keystone project, imaging what the cost per barrel might fall to. In previous years, simply the announcement of additional oil was enough to drop the cost of oil $20 per barrel.

So, when a politician is whinging about the cost of oil, gas companies gouging the little guy, blah, blah, blah, ask yourself "How did he or she vote on ANWR? Could we have more oil, domestically produced right now?"

Domestically produced oil is also important. It produces less emissions when you have to ship it to the lower 48. It creates jobs locally, not just the oil workers, but the entire community that supports them. And it reduces our interests overseas. If we had no need of any oil from Saudi Arabia, would we really need to give an aerial intercourse through a perambulating pastry about the needs of a bunch of half-civilized petro-terrorists?

Listening to the modern media, the mantra is that the "president can do little about the cost of oil". It is interesting to wonder where this defense was during the jump in gas prices during the Bush administration. But this assertion is naive, at best.

Most obviously, the president could lift the 50 cent per gallon federal tax that is loaded on each gas purchase. And, of course, he could authorize additional drilling around the country, which he had previously banned, based on a desire to protect our environment. Or his campaign contributions.

Less obvious is his foreign policy. The cost of oil is affected by how nervous investors get about the chances that the supply of oil might be threatened by natural disasters or political/military upheaval. The president, contrary to his opinion of himself, cannot affect natural disasters. But foreign policy is the president's thing.

Obama's foreign policy seems to be the result of some "adhocracy", making decisions on the spur of the moment. What has resulted has been a degree of uncertainty in the region, as well as a sense of discomfort about the prospects of aggressive acts by our enemies. The apology/appeasement tour does not seem to have helped. Indeed, it seems to have encouraged Ahmadinejad to behave badly, which destabilizes the region, which puts pressure on the other oil producing nations. Perhaps a stronger approach might have kept various dictators in their places, making for a more stable world and more stable commodities prices. Like him or not, Reagan managed to enforce the pax Americana with suprisingly little military force.

And for those who wonder about our need for petroleum products at all, go to Amish country and live on a farm. It may be peaceful, but that is because you pass out at night from the backbreaking labor each day. That is the world you are arguing for. City life would be worse. Life in 4 story tenements (no concrete, no steel) made of wood and plaster, water you have to haul up from the crossroad fountain each morning, and the total lack of private bath facilities. 

No, the most sensible approach is to lay out our objectives in terms of three benchmark periods of time. This way we supply our energy needs today, without driving the middle class into penury, we reduce waste and pollution mid-term, and finally we hit on the way to produce renewable energy that is clean, cheap, and efficient. 

Make sense. 

They'll never go for it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Omnes Exeunt...

There is a story about the Greek philosopher Solon, and how, when asked by king Croesus who was the happiest man in the world, told the story of a poor man who lived his life, did his duty, and died. Croesus was baffled, of course. How could the happiest man not be Croesus himself? Solon answered simply: "Never count a man happy until you see how he has died." The words were prophetic: Croesus would go to war against the Medes and lose his kingdom.

The lesson still holds. As much as we want to laud the achievements of great people, how they end their lives is as telling as how they lived them. Two examples come to mind: Joe Paterno and Whitney Houston.

"Joe Pa" lead an exemplary life as a coach and a man at Penn State University. He established a reputation for probity, commitment to academic excellence, and scrupulous honesty. And then the scandal broke. Given the chance to do the right thing, to turn his former assistant coach in and come forward with the sordid details, Joe punted. He locked Sandusky out of the locker room, and forbade him from bringing minors onto the campus. He protected the reputation of Penn State and Joe Paterno. God forbid that a report like this break out and stain the reputation of Joe, who had worked so closely with Sandusky for so long. In the end, Joe was dismissed from his post, dying a short time after. In the end, Joe's reputation for honesty and virtuous living lies tarnished. He had the choice to do the right thing, at considerable cost to his legacy or to do the easy thing, to cover himself with "good enough" and hope the news never get out. In the end, that is the final paragraph of any biography of Joe Paterno.

Whitney Houston is in much the same state. A multiple Grammy award winner, a woman with tremendous talent, and the one remaining image we are left with is Whitney the addict, Whitney the woman in a downward spiral, Whitney acting out the train wreck of her life for public consumption. According to sources close to her, she was on the comeback trail, putting her life together, releasing another album, getting her name out there, all too little, all too late.

I will stipulate to the fact that I am an unfeeling bastard, but the cries of "tragedy" involved in her death are a bit hyperbolic. Her fate is lamentable. But her fate is not the fall of a tragic heroine beset by the vicissitudes of fortune. Her fate is the pathetic result of a life ill-lived. "How could she be dead?" cried more than one facebook post. How? I am not a medical examiner, but I would venture that her death is a result of the cumulative effects of drug and alcohol abuse over the past 20 years. Her death is an object lesson in the words of Solon. When she was at the height of her career, when fame and success came easily, who would have suspected a lonely death in a bathtub? How we leave our lives is as significant as how we have conducted our lives, because our exit will be the last thing people remember about us.