The phrase “oil addiction” has come into common use…in his speech the other night, Obama generalized this to “addiction to fossil fuels.”
A little historical perspective…
Before we were addicted to oil, we were addicted to coal. This fuel was used to heat homes, to drive locomotives and steamships, to power steam engines in factories, and for many other things in addition to its present-day uses in power generation and iron/steel production. While coal has many positive qualities as a fuel, the age of coal had its drawbacks. Coal mining was dangerous and often injurious to health. Stoking of furnaces involved backbreaking labor…although automatic stokers were developed for locomotives and power plants, the firing of steamship boilers still required the round-the-clock effort of large numbers of human beings. (See Eugene O’Neill, The Hairy Ape.) And coal was and is heavy and bulky in proportion to its energy, so that it could not enable the development of such things as airplanes, automobiles, and farm tractors. All of these factors were changed by the large-scale availability of oil. The need for human beings to serve as Hairy Apes was greatly reduced.
Before we were addicted to coal, we were addicted to wood. In addition to being the primary material used for construction (of ships as well as buildings), wood was used for heating homes and for firing the furnaces of ironworks and other metallurgical facilities. Forests around such enterprises were destroyed throughout the practical wood-gathering radius. In many parts of the world, “peak wood” was a real threat. Wood famine was avoided only via the emergence of the steam engine, which made possible the pumping of water from mines and hence greatly improved the economics of coal mining, and the discovery that coke (made from coal) could serve as a substitute for charcoal (made from wood) in blast furnace operation.
Human beings need energy. Would we say horses are addicted to grass, which is the source of energy for this species? For the human species, energy sources are intermediated by mental as well as physical effort and hence will change over time. And there is no perfect energy source. Wood and coal both had their serious problems; so does oil, although it is superior in many ways to the two preceding fuels. But the fact that an energy source is imperfect is no reason to demonize it.
Much of the talk about oil and alternative energy ignores a key point: in the United States, very little oil is used for electricity generation. Hence, all those solar cells and wind turbines, even should they achieve enough scale to represent a material part of U.S. electrical generation, don’t directly cut oil consumption. I really question whether the typical journalist is aware of the above fact…I’m pretty sure that the average citizen, who is still largely dependent for information on the old media, is not. And there are no guarantees about when, if ever, battery technology will improve to the point at which electric vehicles can generally replace oil-propelled vehicles. For the last century, there have been many companies with very strong commercial incentives to improve battery technology, in addition to several decades government-funding research…yet batteries are still vastly inferior to gasoline and diesel fuel on the basis of bulk and weight.
Moreover, the breadth of transition to electric vehicles will depend largely on the relative costs of electricity vs oil-based fuels. Making electricity more expensive, via a focus on the very expensive generation technologies of wind and solar, is not exactly a good way to encourage its use…yet the word “nuclear” doesn’t even appear in Obama’s speech. And making all forms of energy more expensive, as Obama clearly wants to do, is a guaranteed way of harming U.S. industrial competitiveness and reducing the overall U.S. standard of living.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about oil dependence and availability, and there are practical things that can be done…for example, there may be practical biofuels on the horizon, yet it seems these are being scanted by the politically-driven emphasis on corn-based ethanol. Compressed natural gas can play a role in local transportation–buses, delivery trucks, etc–and quite a bit of this is already happening. Freight railroads can be electrified, and there is still potential market share expansion for rail versus long-distance trucking. But it does no good to demonize oil while talking in galactic and unrealistic terms about changing the whole world of energy. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with the immediate problem. The oil flow needs to be stopped; cleanup needs to occur; and drilling needs to continue.
In business and government organizations, one often sees a manager who is having difficulty solving immediate problems, and/or who doesn’t particularly care about solving these problems, who responds by insisting on some overwhelming project of radical change. This is very common in information technology groups–an IT manger, faced with demands from the business side to (say) fix the order processing system so that it stops losing orders and requiring so much entry of duplicate information when it does work, will throw up his hands and assert that solving these problems is impossible unless he is allowed to spend $50 million on some new technology–the implementation of which new technology will, not at all coincidentally, look very good on his resume. These projects, which are often given spiffy code names (“Project X,” “Rainbow,” etc) do not have a very good track record for success. Robert Britcher, in his analysis of the attempted implementation of a new air traffic control system, described the process astutely and amusingly:
You’re living in a modest house and you notice the refrigerator deteriorating. The ice sometimes melts, and the door isn’t flush, and the repairman comes out, it seems, once a month. Then you notice it’s bulky and doesn’t save energy, and you’ve seen those new ones at Sears. The first thing you do is look into some land a couple of states over, combined with several other houses of similar personality. Then you get I M Pei and some of the other great architects and hold a design run-off…
Obama is doing something similar in failing to focus adequately on immediate issues of disaster recovery and required energy production, and on intermediate-term opportunities to do practical things to reduce oil dependence, in the name of a hand-waving galactic vision.
Mark Perry on the benefits of oil
Chemical engineer and energy blogger Robert Rapier on transitioning away from fossil fuels, and particularly on the role of ethanol and other biofuels.
Roger Simon on Obama’s speech
The story of a software failure…the attempt to implement a new air traffic control system known as the Advanced Automation System