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  • “Oil Addiction”

    Posted by David Foster on June 17th, 2010 (All posts by )

    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.

    Some links:

    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


    14 Responses to ““Oil Addiction””

    1. David Foster Says:

      See also Don Sensing on the problems with Obama’s analogies with the space program and with WWII military production; also, thoughts from Robert Avrech.

    2. soccer dad Says:

      Jeff Jacoby had a recent column on this subject.

    3. Joseph Somsel Says:

      In 1970, 35% of electrical generation was fueled by oil. Today, that’s down to 2%, replaced largely by the 100 nuclear reactors built since then. New coal plants helped too.

      Oil remains the unsurpassed optimum energy source for transport. I wouldn’t hold my breathe waiting for electric cars. Electrochemistry and the periodic table put physical limits on the performance so future improvements in range and carrying capacity will be minor, just as they have from Thomas Edison’s time to today.

      Any successful energy policy must be based on both physics and human needs/desires. The Left and the Enviros base their policy proposals on pipedreams (at best) and cynical extortion schemes at worst.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Calling oil use an “addiction” implies that it is a luxury product that we can easily do without if we just suck it up a little.

      In reality, calling oil use an “addiction” is just as stupid as saying people are “addicted” to vitamins or oxygen. It reveals a childish understanding of how the infrastructure of the modern world works. If we don’t have oil, people die. It’s just that simple. It’s not just transportation fuel its also chemical feedstock for a vast array of technologies. People who believe that we can significantly reduce our use of oil in the short term without simultaneously significantly reducing our standard of living are engaging in dangerous flights of fantasy.

      The idea of “oil addiction” is simply another instance of long reoccurring historical pattern dating back to “workers of the world arise, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Leftist claim to absolutely and with no margin for error predicted a massive crises on the near horizon but as luck would have it the tradeoffs for avoiding the catastrophe are so minor as to be barely worth mentioning. By framing oil as a dangerous luxury product instead of a life and death necessity, leftists seek to portray the continued use of oil as an irrationally needless behavior on par with alcoholism.

      The only conceivable substitutes for oil are (1) the conversion of coal to liquid fuels (2) the use of genetically modified microbes to produce liquid fuel from any cellulose or (3) the use of nuclear reactors to make liquid fuel out of CO2 and water. All three require at least twice the resources per unit of useful energy as does just pumping oil. Only (1) is a proven technology.

      If we seriously attempted to create say 50% of our liquid fuel by any combination of these means we would face a reduction of our standard of living by around 25%. If we extended that to the 3rd world, we would kill hundreds of millions of people. It would essentially be the 73-83 “energy crisis” all over again.

    5. Michael Kennedy Says:

      The ranking member of the energy committee of the House, Joe Barton (TX) apologized to BP for the “shakedown” they were subjected to by Obama. All hell has broken loose about his statement and now we have the depressing scene of Republican Congressmen attacking Barton for a very appropriate and courageous comment. The lawless behavior of the administration seems to be supported by, not only Democrats who could care less about business and industry, but by clueless Republicans. It is a nauseating scene.

      Even Boehner, normally pretty level headed, has disavowed the comments. It could have been a teaching moment about as covering and the rule of law but they are all being stampeded. Soon we will see ugly scenes in Britain as pensioners react to the trashing of their national oil company and the loss of their pensions.

    6. Joseph Somsel Says:

      Actually, one would use nuclear reactors to make hydrogen from water then react that hydrogen with the carbon in coal. Maybe someone will come up with a more direct cycle using nuclear heat but the above looks like the most feasible to me.

      It is common technology for oil refiners to use hydrogen gas to upgrade heavy oils and refinery bottoms into commercially marketable liquid hydrocarbons like diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline. However they start with natural gas. The big oil companies have been supporting reseach into hydrogen production nuclear reactors co-located with their refineries.

      Starting with CO2 seems like a more energy-consumptive path compared to nearly pure, solid carbon in coal, or more likely coke.

    7. Shannon Love Says:

      Joseph Somsel,

      It’s less efficient but it is carbon neutral which makes it more politically palatable. *sigh*

    8. Anonymous Says:

      “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:”

      The above describes life in many a teaching hospital. Like, you just want a little part-time admin help for your day-to-day stuff so that you can be more efficient, and instead you get some combination of the following:

      1) a new formal title for something that you are already doing informally
      2) a new manager for a newly made-up management position
      3) a pep talk involving a fancy new management philosophy (we are now implementing Harvard Business School Philosophy X! All will be well! All hail Harvard Business School Philosophy X! “But I just wanted a little secretarial help with the filing and with reports. That’s all”, you say meekly and to no avail.)


      – Madhu

      (Not to pick on Harvard or B schools or anything. Medicine is maddening all by itself.)

    9. onparkstreet Says:

      I keep forgetting to sign in these days….

      – Madhu

    10. onparkstreet Says:

      4) I forgot to close the loop: the new management will then order some fancy new computer system to help the nurses and doctors be more efficient, which you then will have to learn all about, thus making you less efficient than you already were.

      I *so* wish I could draw: I’d Dilbert-ize medicine. Anyone doing that already?

      – Madhu

    11. Joseph Somsel Says:

      I’ve never been and never want to be a politically correct engineer.

      Instead of coal, would charcoal briquettes be PC?

      I too read the BP agreement as a shakedown. They hired Jamie Gorelick as their lawyer, for gosh sake!

      Others see this as a stop limit on BP’s liability. I’ve heard that this is the WSJ intepretation noting that BP’s stock price went UP on news of the announcement. It does limit the uncertainty in valuation of BP and that is a valuable thing.

    12. tehag Says:

      For the sixties’ generation, their epigone, toadies, and imitators, “addiction” describes many relationships: sex addict, drug addict, alcohol addict and the related “junkie:” football junkie, political junkie. This relationship, of bound helplessness to the inhumane and indifferent, is their primary emotional orientation towards life. It is the first metaphor reached for when describing some relationship between man and object. It is almost always false and is certainly false in this case. No one is addicted to oil, even metaphorically.

    13. david foster Says:

      An insightful article by Charles Krauthammer on why Obama is neither interested in nor capable of solving practical problems.

    14. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      Here at the “U”, we have had this Energy Conservation campaign replete with slogans coined by Minitrue plastered on buildings all over campus.

      One poster proclaims that “One Trillion BTUs” have been saved since 2006 since the program has started. A quick engineering back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that energy for heat has been reduced 5%, but they don’t tell you that. A 5% savings is substantial, but it is far from the 80% reduction some people think we need in our lifetime to Save the Planet.

      One of the little electric “mule trucks” from FP&M was set up and a young person was handing out cookies, with annoying Billy Joel music blaring from speakers (where I went to school, they were called B&G — buildings and grounds — but Minitrue calls them Facilities, Parking, and Maintenance or some such thing). This electric mule (essentially a sport-utility golf cart) had a solar panel on top, which was a new thing, although how much of the battery charge comes from that panel and how much from the electric outlet, I don’t know.

      So, among the “factoids” painted on the truck, a list of non-sequitors such as “you are more in danger from a cow than from a shark” was that “12 million barrels of oil per year go to making plastic bags.”

      Now this business of substituting “permanent” grocery bags you have to buy for a buck a piece for the flimsy plastic and paper offered for free with purchase at the grocery store is the latest green vogue. I pointed out to the person handing out cookies, an Engineering College undergrad at that, that “every school child knows by now” (OK, I was being snarky or I hung around The Oil Drum site too long) that the US oil usage was 20 million barrels per day, and that at 40 percent of oil going to gasoline, eliminating plastic bags could save less than half a percent of the oil used in cars.

      Anyway, I tried to impress upon this student that in the classroom sections I teach, I attempt to indoctrinate engineers with some sense of numeracy, proportions, and scientific ethics regarding the reporting of numbers, and suggested that the “12 million barrels of oil per year was misleading because 12 million barrels seems as such a large number, but 1/2% of energy used in driving would be more ethical to say from an engineering perspective.”

      Well, my argument of “I am one of your professors and as an engineer you had better get straight on your ethical responsibilities as an engineer not to ‘spin’ numbers” did not get very far at all. “It may be a small amount, but it (plastic bags) are a complete waste” and on and on. I suggested the late Richard Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science” essay as a reading assignment, where among other things he commends bend-over-backwards honesty beyond the “letter of the 10 Commandments”, telling students that they can sit down with their rabbi and parse how truthful they need to be with their (spouses) regarding whatever transgressions they were contemplating, but that the Scientific Method requires unconditional disclosure. I commended this as reading to anyone contemplating a career “as a scientist or a research engineer.” The reply, “I know I am not going ‘into that’ when I graduate.” Yes, and that is such a Good Thing you are not.

      This was simply amazing, this student was not going to give up one inch of ground (Stalingrad must be held at all cost!) on the concern that the focus on plastic bags may be misplaced, and that people using cloth bags may be mislead in terms of how much that is helping, and that attention needs to be placed on bigger things first to make more progress on energy conservation. There wasn’t ever any rope-a-dope of “Yeah, the 12 million number overstates things by scaring people with a big number, but the cumulative effect of reducing consumption of disposables may have an impact.” No, nothing.

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