Saving the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Could Endanger Oil Production

As a friend of mine said after reading this article, "Step on the thing and start drilling!" I’ve been to this part of the country and, with due respect to Midland/Odessa, there’s only one reason for the Permian Basin to exist: to serve up oil and gas for the rest of the country. This little lizard is doing to have to adapt or perish.

Lawmakers Say A tiny 3-inch long creature – the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard – is causing some havoc in the Permian Basin, which stretches from Southeast New Mexico to West Texas. The possibility of it getting added onto the Endangered Species List is giving oil drillers and politicians some big headaches.

The Color of Energy is Black, not Green

James Schlesinger and Robert Hirsch got real today at the Washington Post, laying out in plain language the fact that energy production is more black than green and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s fine to talk about wind and solar as supplemental energy sources. In this context it makes sense to invest in them, but strategically, not as an all-in plan to replace the fossil-fuel-driven electric grid.

A General Electric wind turbine in Ohio.

James Schlesinger and Robert Hirsch got real today at the Washington Post, laying out in plain language the fact that energy production is more black than green and will be for the foreseeable future:

Solar cells and wind turbines are appealing because they are “renewables” with promising implications and because they emit no carbon dioxide during operation, which is certainly a plus. But because both are intermittent electric power generators, they cannot produce electricity “on demand,” something that the public requires. We expect the lights to go on when we flip a switch, and we do not expect our computers to shut down as nature dictates.

At locations without such hydroelectric dams, which is most places, solar and wind electricity systems must be backed up 100 percent by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts. In today’s world, that backup power can only come from fossil fuels.

Because of this need for full fossil fuel backup, the public will pay a large premium for solar and wind — paying once for the solar and wind system (made financially feasible through substantial subsidies) and again for the fossil fuel system, which must be kept running at a low level at all times to be able to quickly ramp up in cases of sudden declines in sunshine and wind. Thus, the total cost of such a system includes the cost of the solar and wind machines, their subsidies, and the cost of the full backup power system running in “spinning reserve.”

It’s fine to talk about wind and solar as supplemental energy sources.  In this context it makes sense to invest in them, but strategically, not as an all-in plan to replace the fossil-fuel-driven electric grid. 

The main reason for this measured approach is that it’s likely to be decades longer before a suitable replacement can be on-line and in nationwide production.  Of the alternatives to oil and coal power that actually exist today, only nuclear stands out as being able to provide large amounts of reliable energy.  Sad then that few people seem to be looking in the right direction.

Cold Fusion Coming Closer?

Pamela Mosier-Boss, a U.S. Navy researcher, isn’t willing to climb out on that limb just yet. But she says that her lab has produced “significant” results, including the generation of highly energetic neutrons, an important byproduct of the fusion process.

Other researchers, including Rice University’s Paul Padley are justifiably skeptical – the Pons-Fleischmann debacle was a mere 20 years ago, after all:

“Fusion could produce the effect they see, but there’s no plausible explanation of how fusion could occur in these conditions,” Padley said. “The whole point of fusion is, you’re bringing things of like charge together. As we all know, like things repel, and you have to overcome that repulsion somehow.”

“Nobody in the physics community would believe a discovery without such a quantitative analysis,” he said.

Also worth noting is the fact that Mosier-Boss has collaborated with on at least some of her Navy research, notably this part of this paper in which their work was unrelated to cold fusion.  Still, it wouldn’t be far afield to wonder if there hasn’t been some cross-pollination of ideas at a minimum.

At any rate, Mosier-Boss seems to be playing her cards close to her vest by framing her results modestly and announcing them well at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society where her work will be featured.

Guerilla Environmentalism or Fraud?

Tim DeChristopher, a Utah economics student, is – for now – the proud possessor of the obligation to buy drilling rights from the federal government on 13 tracts of land he bid on at a recent Bureau of Land Management action.  DeChristopher now owes Uncle Sam $1.8M with no prospects of being able to pay up.  Did he take his environmentalism up a notch or did he commit a fraudulent act by bidding on properties he had no intention of buying?

In my opinion it’s both, with the emphasis on the latter.  This young man may not face criminal proceedings as a result of his actions but he should be made aware that they are a very real possibility and that a repeat of last month’s farce will result in the application of applicable law.

Why?  First, DeChristopher entered into a contractual obligation to the federal government with no ability or intent to meet that obligation.

Second, he fraudulently caused other bidders to pay more for their drilling rights that they ought to as a result of his bids that he had no intention of backing up.

As an economics major DeChristopher is undoubtedly aware of financial impact his actions had on other bidders.  And make no mistake, DeChristopher is a full-on green activist:

"I’ve been an environmentalist for pretty much all my life and done all the things that you’re supposed to do that are supposed to lead toward change," DeChristopher said, accounting for action that, as he tells it, surprised even him. "I’ve marched and held signs. I’ve volunteered in national parks. I’ve written letters and signed petitions. I’ve sat down with my congressman, Jim Matheson, for a long time.

While environmental activism can be a noble cause, it is illegal to deliberately enter financial agreements with another party while intending to default on one’s obligations.  The law is quite clear on this subject if I’m not mistaken, and rightfully so.  The lawful government has decided to auction these drilling rights and DeChristopher, while within his rights to protest the sale, had no right to interfere without intending  to complete the lease.

Environmental advocates like DeChristopher who want to preserve these lands in their pristine state can and should participate in government auctions for drilling rights.  This is a legitimate approach to gaining control over the use of public land – if they pay up.

I understand that not everyone will agree.  What of it?  On one hand, those who think DeChristopher is in the right can simply be dismissed.  They have a process that they must go through to promote that point of view, namely to get fraud laws changed.  Not going to happen.

On the other hand, there is a reasonable line of thinking that goes something like this:  The essential purpose of government auctions is to release public land for the purpose of mineral exploration and extraction; therefore, anything that interferes with that outcome is undesirable. 

(Certainly the BLM wants to get the current market rate for the leases it auctions but that’s only a desired condition of the outcome, not the outcome itself.)

Therefore, environmentalists who interfere with government auctions of mineral leases are in fact thwarting the government by bidding even if they were to follow through and pay the leases in full.

I do have a certain empathy for that viewpoint.  However, at the end of the day an auction for access to public lands is about allocating public lands to the most beneficial use possible.  The auction itself is merely a mechanism for approximating that benefit.  So if environmentalists put their cash on the barrel head and purchase the drilling rights on public lands, so be it.  But that’s what they need to do if they’re going to participate in the process with the rest of the grownups.

How Best to Stimulate the Economy?

Eliot Spitzer is writing for Slate after his fall from grace a few months ago.  Spitzer says that the Obama government’s stimulus plan should focus not on essential infrastructure refurbishments but rather on “transformative investments” that might springboard the American economy ahead of its competitors.  More than that, Spitzer says that it’s incumbent on Obama’s second New Deal to act in this manner in order to “transform our economy and, in turn, some of the fundamental underpinnings of our society”.

One problem with projects far-seeing enough to deserve the “transformative” label is that they are by definition speculative in nature.  They wouldn’t be transformative without the risky element of the unknown.  Risk is not necessarily bad.  A stock portfolio should contain a certain amount of risky holdings because that’s where the highest rates of return can be earned. 

Similarly, government make-work projects, if such are to be created by the new government, should also include some high-risk/high-reward ventures.  But not many.  The federal government’s addiction to gambling with future generations’ economic security is a large part of what has put us in this crisis in the first place.  Doubling down by spending vast sums in an attempt to create the infrastructure of the future might well make things worse instead of better.

For instance, Spitzer’s idea that the federal government should push the deployment of next-generation fuel distribution stations is far from a sure thing.  The price of natural gas, for instance, has been as volatile as that of oil in recent years.  Where is the guarantee that this will be the fuel of the future.  Similarly, where is the assured source of hydrogen that would make laying tens of thousands of miles of pipe a good investment?  Such an investment could take decades to pay off even if the right choices are made up front.  Or all of these technologies could be made obsolete by new development after the money’s been spent.  That’s the problem with making a market.

Considering that significant portions of the existing infrastructure is in need of remediation it seems as though getting these essential projects done first would be a more appropriate approach.  Doing so would amount to getting our house in order, always a good move before leaping onto the next big thing.

Sustainable Energy and You

Rick Strahl just wrote an excellent and timely post – now that oil prices are “back to normal” – about energy, alternatives to oil, peak production, and the impact of an unstable supply on the daily lives of most westerners.  The first step in any attempt to change our energy consumption habits is to really understand how much a stable, affordable power supply means to us.


Think about it, even if you do nothing more than a little thought experiment with yourself. How would you live if you had to make do with a more primitive society that doesn’t run on power or power that is treated as a luxury rather than an abundant ever available resource as it is now? Or even one that doesn’t run with private cars? Do you live in the suburbs with no way to even get to a store by foot and no public transportation? How will you get to work if your job is in the city that’s 20, 50 or 80 miles away? Will you even have a job? In a drastically shrunken economy that has paid a heavy energy tax that is bound to deflate any economic growth that isn’t likely to come back, do you think you’ll still have a paper pushing job? Or an abstract job like programmer for example? How do you code when there’s no consistent electricity and which business would still need abstract work.

That’s a damn good question and one that, to varying degrees, matters to virtually every American and European worker.  A stable, scalable energy industry is one of the primary bedrocks of western civilization.

It’s therefore necessary for citizens to insist that government, at a minimum, nurture an economic environment that allows energy companies to prosper.  This means encouraging competition, minimizing regulation, allowing real diversity in the marketplace, and rewarding research and development efforts.  It also means, as a careful reading of these requirements implies, staying out of the way of the men, women, and companies that produce the energy we, the consumers, demand.

There is an idea loose in the world that people should reduce their energy use by “turning off” part of their lives.  This is an unfortunate Luddite notion and a mistake, culturally and socially speaking.  If energy consumption is to be reduced – along with its parallel impact on the natural world – this must be achieved through increases in efficiency of future generations of electronics and through the development of cleaner energy sources.  Short of the free world being bombed back to the 1800s or earlier, nothing else will ever reduce energy demand and its effects.

Even now, after just the briefest of lulls in the storm of recent energy price increases, Americans are beginning to re-embrace their darlings of yesteryear, the gas-guzzling SUV.  How quickly we forget.

The Wisdom of Markets

Crowd-sourcing, capturing the “wisdom” of the mob, was what the cool kids were doing not so long ago.  Witness the rise of the Daily Kos and other such web sites.  One thing they failed to espouse in their almost universal progressive liberal dogma is that the idea of mining – and manipulating – the minds of the masses is not a new idea.  Free markets do that very same thing, efficiently causing desired products and services to spring into existence and eliminating the unwanted.  How could progressives have overlooked the most important example of their new idea?

Continue reading “The Wisdom of Markets”

Barack Obama’s Priorities

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama recently participated in an anti-global warming rally in California during which he said that few of the nation’s problems were more urgent than global warming.  To his credit, Obama tossed in a throwaway bit about dependence on foreign oil, too.  But if that particular speech can be taken at face value, the soon-to-be-inaugurated president’s priorities are wrong. 

Perhaps Mr. Obama didn’t heard about the whales trapped in the fast-moving arctic ice north of Baffin Island.  Meanwhile the siege in Mumbai continues with over 100 now known to have been killed.  Is the debate over global warming really that important?

Regarding Mumbai, CNN had Deepak Chopra on the air yesterday and while I’m loathe to put much stock in the Love Guru’s arch-rival, he did raise important, oft-asked and oft-ignored questions [emphasis mine]:

…who is financing this? Where is the money coming from? We have to ask very serious, honest questions. What role do we have in this? Are our petrodollars funding both sides of this war on terrorism? Why are we not asking the Saudis where that money is going that we give them? Is it going through this supply chain to Pakistan?

It’s pretty obvious that the answer is yes.  It has to be, even if only through the trickle-down effect of the Saudis’ oil money distributions.

That’s where the national priority ought to be, squarely on developing domestic energy sources.  Doing so would have the beneficial effects of deflating the artificial importance that oil-producing countries have in the world while ensuring a stable energy market at home on which business decisions can be made.

With respect to Michael’s opinion that oil-producing countries deserve special consideration vis-a-vis the economic shock that a move away from petroleum might create, I don’t think that’s true.  It would do the much-beset-upon youth of Saudi Arabia, et al, good to lose their cash cow so that they must learn to compete in a world in which the value of their ideas earns them their livelihoods rather than geological happenstance.  In the end, it’s up to oil-producing countries to pursue a political and economic course that maximizes and safeguards their long-term position, not their consumers. 

That same long-term perspective must be applied to the problem of man-made C02 emissions.  President-elect Obama should realize that, given that the U.S.’s natural resources point to coal and nuclear, it may be the case that the country’s pollution problems – and investment in nuclear energy – actually need to increase over the next few decades while research into efficient, sustainable clean energy sources continues.

Real Alternative Energy Coming?

When I first read about Hyperion Power Generation‘s plans to manufacture ~25 MWe, turn-key nuclear power plants I was skeptical, to say the least.  Still am, truthfully.  Now the Guardian says that Hyperion has several confirmed orders for the device.  Could this be a real Middle East Oil Killer?

The Guardian:

The first confirmed order came from TES, a Czech infrastructure company specialising in water plants and power plants. ‘They ordered six units and optioned a further 12. We are very sure of their capability to purchase,’ said Deal. The first one, he said, would be installed in Romania. ‘We now have a six-year waiting list. We are in talks with developers in the Cayman Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.’

One immediately notices that no major industrialized nations are among those on Hyperion’s list of prospects.  One obvious reason for the omission are the regulatory hurdles in place in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Nuclear power is regarded with suspicion and worse in the States, making the U.S. one of the last places where what seems to amount to a prototype device could be deployed.

Still, I wonder.  The need and the technology are both to the point that such a device could become an acceptable risk/reward tradeoff for countries tired of literally being held over a barrel by the thuggish OPEC cartel and the passive-aggressive Russians.

In a former life I knew a nuclear engineer who’d worked for years in a U.S. power plant.  His estimation of his plant’s safety plan could not possibly been higher.  Pride goeth before the fall, it’s been written.  Still, those in a position to know believe nuclear power is safe and clean.  I’m inclined to trust their judgment.

Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with my former acquaintance and get his take on Hyperion’s offering.  Any scientists in the audience with thoughts to share in the interim?

Liberals Then and Now

Here’s what Jimmy Carter had to say almost 30 years ago about the energy crisis of his time:

From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade

I’m asking Congress to mandate, to require as a matter of law, that our nation’s utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.

We will protect our environment. But when this nation critically needs a refinery or a pipeline, we will build it.

Mr. Carter was no presidential genius, as those of us over 40 remember quite clearly.  And he’s not gotten any more brilliant with age, his worthy work with Habitat for Humanity notwithstanding.  But he’s a veritable sage compared with Al Gore:

"If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration."

Gore, whose words were met with cheers and applause, believes that the world has fallen behind in tackling climate change in the last year. "This is a rout," he said. "We are losing badly."

Of course it is.  Civilization as we define it depends utterly on electricity.  There’s no user sugar-coating it – that’s just the way it is.  Everything in our lives from employment to food storage requires a constant supply of power.  South Texas was recently blown back to the Dark Ages by Hurricane Ike and while most of us made it through just fine, no one was living a normal American life during the outage.  We were waiting for the lights to come on and marking time until they did.

Green energy fantasies aside, other than oil and coal there are no sources of energy available to us in the short term.  Jimmy Carter recognized that we needed coal to survive and prosper as a nation; modern liberals do not.  Hard as it is to believe, liberals have actually made themselves less in tune with reality than Carter was.

Your average American understands the connection between electricity and modern life quite clearly.  What is so difficult for Gore and his disciples to understand?

h/t Carol