Finance Temporary Oil Reprieve by Gerry Krownstein April 26, 2009 Surging oil prices were the big headlines of 2006 and 2007. Gasoline went over $5 per gallon in some parts of the country, and triggered, in part, the collapse of the domestic automobile industry, as the gas guzzlers they had bet their futures on stopped selling. There was much moaning and groaning and gnashing of teeth as the American public mourned the eight years the Bush administration wasted that could have been spent on research into alternate fuels, promotion of efficient public transit, and restructuring of the economy to reduce the impact of petroleum. The current economic crisis, and the resulting crash in petroleum prices, gives us at least a partial chance to recoup some of the lost time. Diminished economic activity results in diminished oil usage. Since the current recession is likely to continue for a year or two, we can regain at least that much time if we do several important things:
-Fund research and development of a wide variety of alternate electrical power sources: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, hydroelectric.
-Fund research in electrical power storage, which is the major roadblock to converting from portable fuels (gasoline, diesel, ethynol, biodiesel, even hydrogen and natural gas) to pure electric.
-Build efficient regional light rail in those larger parts of the country that lack it and have sufficient population to matter in terms of reduction of automobile usage.
-Provide financial incentives to encourage movement back to city centers from the suburbs. Suburban living is the least efficient way of using energy, and the most efficient way of producing pollution.
-Fund and encourage family planning, with a view to stabilizing our population, and the world's.
-Encourage efficient energy use: efficient appliances, TV sets that do not draw power when off, as the current instant-on sets do, cars with better gas mileage (or, when power storage technology matures, all electric systems), low energy lighting, reduction in building display lighting and reuse of waste heat in buildings and factories, high-speed intercity rail to reduce airplane use, revival of abandoned railroad freight lines to reduce truck use, as well as many other techniques that pay for themselves over time.
Most of these items require long lead times and heavy funding: building out light rail and freight lines, developing better electrical storage (which may be on the verge of a breakthrough at this time) and constructing non-petroleum generating stations, for example. Others can be put into motion quickly and at low cost: encouraging efficient energy use, encouraging family planning, for both of which the technologies exist and the public is already in tune with the idea.
Two other energy sources must be mentioned: coal and nuclear. Coal is highly polluting, from its inception through its end. Coal extraction (no longer really mining – the dominent technique is to rip the top off a mountain and dig out the coal with giant scoops) generates toxic wastes, air pollution from the giant machinery used, and more pollution in the transportation of the coal to the generating plant. Here, the coal is burned to produce steam and generate electricity, releasing still more pollution into the atmosphere. It is unlike that the extraction phase can be made more benign. The energy generation phase can be made to reduce the carbon, sulfur and other compounds released into the atmosphere, but the cost will be high and the generators are unwilling to pay it. Nuclear energy has possibilities, but they are dim. Fusion energy has few environmental problems attached to it, but hasn't been made to work. It has so far also been proven to be enormously expensive. (As the saying goes, “Fusion energy is 10 years away, and always will be.”) The cold fusion enthusiasm of a decade ago has fizzled. Fission energy works, is in use in many countries, uses a fuel that is plentiful in nature, and is almost economical. (It appears to be relatively cheap only because the many subsidies, some overt and some hidden, are usually ignored.) It has two major problems: nuclear waste and nuclear waste. The obvious problem with nuclear waste is what do you do with soimething that remains a serious contaminant for 10,000 years or more, a period longer than civilization on earth. No solution has yet been found that is politically and scientifically acceptable, so used uranium fuel continues to build up in sometimes leaky drums at nuclear plants. Every state is reluctant to be on the shipping path even if a permanent repository could be found, and so far no repository has been found acceptable for a 10,000 year interment. The other waste problem is that long-lived radioactive material, all of it dangerous and some of it able to be refined into weapons-grade material, is a tempting target for terrorists and for rogue nations as well. Producing more of this stuff is not in our national interest.
Petroleum and natural gas prices are likely to regain their highs by 2012 at the latest. If we haven't made a serious effort to shift to electricity by then, the impact on an already wobbly economy could be devastating.