Progress (or Not) with Energy and the Environment (Part III)

by Duane Nichols on April 25, 2014

"It Is Up To Us" - - Carl Sagan

Part III.  ”Cui bono,” who benefits from change and who looses?

Part III of three parts.

By S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor & Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV

In Part I in this series, we have seen the ever mounting costs of more and more hydrocarbon burning, and have taken a look at the alternatives available in Part II. In this section (Part III) we want to take a look at who benefits from each means of generating energy.

The principal alternatives are solar, wind and conservation; and, these are labor intensive rather than capital intensive and are relatively low-tech, at least for most of the workers. Design and manufacture of the solar equipment is high-tech. So also for the wind power generators. But where society needs jobs is in the low tech areas, such as building and applying technologies. And such jobs with wind, solar and conservation are safer, close to home, 40 hours a week, plus continuous month after month jobs.

The alternative energy sources are far less destructive to the countryside which will be ravished by hydrocarbon production. A look at the areas where fracking has be done is distressing to anyone. Environmental impacts are obvious including surface land disturbances, geologic layer disturbances, water consumption and pollution, air pollution, gas leaks as well as fires and explosions.  The diesel truck traffic and air pollution are extreme.

Coal resource regions sometimes overlap, to some extent, potential shale exploitation regions but will have a similar devastating influence on the surface. Change away from hydrocarbons will benefit long-term production of food, timber, fiber, and environmental services. It will help avoid the social disruption which results from no jobs and people crowed out of their homeland.

Alternate energy industries avoid expense to the public requiring taxes, too, such as road destruction, extra enforcement costs, costs due to contamination of water, accidents, eyesores along roads, to name a few.

The military is not often mentioned as wanting hydrocarbons, but they do. Modern warfare is fought with oil, and for oil. The Middle East was taken over by Great Britain and France after WWI because of the need for oil to fuel ships. Capturing the Caucasus oil fields was a principal part of Hitler’s “Drang nach Osten” (Push to the East).

It is certainly no less important today. The US doesn’t want to leave Afghanistan, because this would allow a connection between China, a coming industrial power, and Russia, which has over 25% of the world’s natural gas, while the US has less than 5%. In 2006, the US military was using 16,000 barrels of oil a day in Afghanistan, and 40,000 in Iraq. Total use was 356,000 barrels per day in 2005. If memory serves me correctly, some of the diesel fuel sent to Afghanistan from Pakistan cost $60 per gallon to ship.

Burning hydrocarbons requires vast capital costs in production, refining and conversion to electricity. The principal beneficiaries of shale drilling are those involved with acquisition and dispersal of capital. Workers are well paid (except those who are at the bottom rung and must work in horrible conditions and have miserable hours far from their homes). Shale production companies have so far made relatively modest incomes and have lived mostly on hope for a better future. Several have been on the verge of bankruptcy. Lobbying, public relations and legal costs have been huge. But the money managers have made it big.

An important part of the push for fracking is the local spin-offs. These are businesses that have serviced the fracking companies. Trucking, fuel (huge amounts are used), various food and lodging, and the small amount of local labor hired.

Coal, conservatively managed, continues to make money for all, in spite of the effect on people and on communities. Coal electrical generating plants, ignoring the problems, are the cheapest to operate of the hydrocarbon electrical plants. (Hence the popularity overseas.) Longtime workers cut out by declines are screwed, because they can’t do any other work without major life changes, like moving and retraining, which cost more than they can afford. (That will be the fate of shale drillers when it is over, too.)

Conventional oil seems to be in a steady, slow declining state. Most of the activity as been in imporing and refining. “We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply… New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover – but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].” Quote from Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 before retiring in 2008.

Another really big break for hydrocarbon burning is the externalized costs. Since it is so widely considered equivalent to “energy” in the abstract, and energy is a major driver of the economy with huge opportunities built into law to shift costs off on other businesses and the public. This is a huge topic. Suffice it to say, if you get the benefits, you get to look like your business is doing really well and the domestic economy is doing really badly, because the domestic economy has borne all the costs and you get all the profit.

The great hope for the longtime future is fusion, where unlimited fuel is the oceans, where there is little danger of radiation. However, research and deployment are very capital intensive. Those who control the hydrocarbon industry are the center of political power and can be counted on to utilize their holdings to preserve their power whenever they can and resist new sources.

We need a Manhattan Project-like effort to develop fusion for the cities. Too much area is needed for solar and wind to power cities. Frankly, the necessary political will to do this in time is unlikely, in view of the concentration of political power and the manipulated media.

A wise man has observed that 50 years ago was the first time in history mankind had obvious capacity to destroy the human race: atomic warfare. But now we can see a second possibility, resource extraction that destroys everything else: climate, food, clean water and air, and social structure. Our darker inner nature is destroying Mother Nature, on which we depend for life.

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