Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
JIMMY CARTER’S SWEATER
BY Daniel Sweeney
I had intended to conclude my series on innovative heat engine in this posting, but that can wait. Instead I would like to make one of my rare forays into the realm of public policy.
The chickens, it appears may finally be coming home to roost. The American public and indeed the rest of the world are facing the very real prospect of permanent high petroleum prices. It is possible that a significant price decline could occur in the future, but all indications are that such a decline would be only temporary. Demand will simply outstrip production, if not in the midterm surely in the long term. We happen to believe that stepped up exploitation of heavy oils and oil shales as well as massive production of synfuel from coal will do something to alleviate the decline in conventional petroleum production, but since none of these substitutes can be produced inexpensively, the high prices are probably here to stay.
Such production of unconventional oil will of course do nothing to alleviate the concentration of carbon dioxide and particulate emissions in the atmosphere, but that’s a separate problem, one of less moment to inhabitants of the developed world than are the elevated operating costs in respect to their automobiles.
Mainstream newspapers have at last begun to discuss peak oil in their editorial pages, something I thought I wouldn’t see for at least another decade. I recall enduring considerable derision when bringing up the topic five years ago, but I must confess I derive little comfort from being vindicated.
Interestingly, politicians, with very rare exceptions, never ever broach the topic. And of course the recent energy bill makes no acknowledgement of the problem. In the minds of politicians across the political spectrum—that is, extending from right center to far right because the left in America has atrophied to nonexistence—oil shortages appear to represent a problem that will be effectively sorted out by the market, and thus should be exempted from all political discussion.
The whole issue of plotting a new energy regime is off the table, being of infinitely less moment than the teaching of “intelligent design” in our schools or regulating the cloning of Afghan hounds, the political issues du jour.
Is it because our political leaders are indeed the ignorant sluts we’ve often suspected them to be in our more paranoid moments? No, I believe that for the most part they’re more motivated by fear than greed, and the fear, unfortunately, is justifiable.
To understand the genesis of that fear, let us board our light rail time machine which will take us back no further than the disco age presided over by the very antithesis of boogie, the honorable James Earl. “Jimmy” Carter, the thirty-ninth President of the United States and one of the unhappiest.
Now Jimmy Carter was and is a genuinely bright individual, and was and is singularly knowledgeable on the subject of energy. He knew of a certainty that protracted energy problems were looming ahead, and he took the largely politically induced price spikes of his own era as something of a wake up call. And he communicated his unease to the public by addressing the nation on television wearing a cardigan sweater and indicating that we should all turn our thermostats down to avoid burning any more fossil fuel than we had to. Carter also spoke of a “malaise” that was supposedly afflicting the nation—was he alluding to disco, one wonders—and he generally affected a glum, censorious persona that was painfully at odds with all those platform shoes and silver coke spoons and heady good times on the dance floor that so many of us were experiencing at the time. One was inclined, I must say, to turn up the music, clasp one’s dancing partner close, and generate one’s own energy borne of the persistent high hopes that almost never desert the young. I myself was young then and shameless frequented discoteques, and though I voted for Carter, I secretly sympathized with the angry buck rabbit that attacked the President in his canoe. “Shut up, already,” the irate lagomorph is said to have have shouted as it bit off a piece of the President’s paddle. “Enough with the small is beautiful crap.”
Apparently enough of us rabbits were mesmerized by the disco mirror balls and annoyed by the President’s jeremiads that things began to look very bad for Jungle Jimmy in the polls. Indeed, he lost by a landslide to Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan, and political America drew a lesson from that. Don’t say nothin’ about conservation or shortages lest you draw an early retirement from the government and get waylaid by some buck rabbit with a hard on. People want to splurge not conserve. As they say in New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler.
So here we are, four years into the new millennium and our political leadership—is that the right word—are absolutely mute on the subject of gasoline beyond assuring us that the Alaska Wildlife Preserve is endowed with inexhaustible supplies of light crude if we’d just be patient.
One wonders why the current administration simply doesn’t resort to the obvious expedient, expel the local population from the vicinity of Iraq’s southern oil fields, establish a cordon sanitaire around the latter complete with electric fences and huge swathes of land mined fields to keep out insurgents, and simply take over the operation and get the fields up to full capacity. Obviously any pretense of spreading democracy would have to be abandoned, but that never stopped the colonial powers of old. I am predicting in fact that such a course of action will eventually be undertaken with what long term consequences I can’t even begin to imagine.
The larger question is are longer term energy problems amenable to pure market solutions? Previous energy revolutions were mostly market driven and privately financed. The exception is the massive use of innovative windmills in seventeenth century Holland where public funding figured in a big way. Of course one could also include Stalin’s electrification projects of the early twentieth century but one hesitates to cite that model. Let us fervently hope that the market alone can somehow save us because it doesn’t look like any political efforts will be made.
I had hoped by this time in my life to be generating own hydrogen and tooling around in a BMW seven liter flexible fuel vehicle, oblivious to the chaotic market for dinosaur juice. Evidently, it wasn’t to be.
(feel free to comment)
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