Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 June 2010

Lessons of the Great BP Oil Spill


Watching our politicians and pundits draw “lessons” from the Great BP Oil Spill is a bit like digging up an ant colony. The little creatures run frantically, every which way, in seemingly random directions.

So it is with the “lessons” described in our mainstream media. New York Times pundits almost unanimously agree that the President has lost his political touch and needs to find his inner Hulk. Progressives want to shut down all offshore oil drilling and have everybody drive less. (Fat chance for that last one!) Conservatives want everyone, including the Louisiana shrimpers, to just suck it up and wait for the marketplace to encourage innovation and better and more competent deep drilling.

Virtually everyone is ignoring the simplest, most straightforward lesson. Using oil as our principal source of transportation energy has much greater risk than we thought, and that risk is much shorter-term than we thought. That lesson repeats itself with every barrel of crude polluting the Gulf.

Most of us already knew that fossil fuels have big long-term risks. The biggest is global warming. Scientists tell us that, if we don’t reduce it this decade, our climate will change irrevocably from the climate we evolved in, and ultimately millions will suffer and die.

There are important medium-terms risks, too. Peak oil is coming, if it hasn’t already arrived. That’s why we’re using incredibly expensive and risky technologies, like drilling wells a mile down in the deep ocean, to find more. The low-hanging fruit is lone gone. Duh!

Demand for oil is still increasing rapidly, especially in the developing world, and will increase for the foreseeable future. The result of increasing demand and decreasing supply is inevitable price increases, which inelasticity of both supply and demand will make hard and steep.

So if we humans don’t change our ways, the medium-term future threatens dramatic price increases, shortages, fights over resources, and slower economic growth. In a global economy that is healthier than it’s ever been (even if our own economy isn’t so promising just now), that’s about the only thing that could cause another worldwide depression.

Another medium-term risk is strategic dependence, including military dependence, on scarce oil from petrostates that are our rivals or enemies, including sponsors of terrorism. A war or other upheaval in the Middle East could increase this risk suddenly and dramatically.

Coal also has huge medium-term risks. They include sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulate pollution, poisoning our atmosphere and our seas. They also include epidemics of asthma and other respiratory diseases, and a world that looks like Beijing or Shanghai on a still day.

All this we knew. But we hadn’t really internalized that oil has big short-term risks, too. Two months ago, no one had heard of Deepwater Horizon. Today, everyone knows that Big Oil can destroy a whole region’s ecology, plus the human economy that depends on it, in a matter of weeks.

That’s short term. So is the death of the eleven oil workers, whose fate everyone seems conveniently to forget. Ditto the 29 coal miners who died not too long ago.

So the lesson of the Great BP Oil Spill is that oil has huge long-term, medium-term, and short-term risks. It is therefore the riskiest energy option of all, even including coal. (Coal has little medium-term economic risk because we and Canada have so much of it.) This is true, now, today, June 2, 2010. That’s the only unmistakably clear lesson of the Great BP Oil Spill.

The next question is what we do about it. Do we continue to rely on, invest in, and gamble on the energy option that has the greatest long-term, medium-term, and short-term risks of all? The rational response is no: we find alternatives. We invest heavily in them, as quickly as we can, until we have reduced the various levels of risk.

We don’t have far to look for alternatives. Nuclear, wind and solar energy work right now, today.

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island teach us that nuclear energy has long- and medium-term risks, too. These risks are not insuperable. But the biggest risk is political. NIMBY opposition to sensible waste disposal reigns supreme. So dangerous radioactive waste remains dispersed throughout the nation, where it is difficult to monitor, control, contain, and protect from terrorism. Nuclear power could and will be part of the solution, but our collectively irrational reaction to its manageable dangers makes it a second option at best.

But what about wind and solar? Have you ever heard of anyone killed by a solar panel or a windmill? Has either ever destroyed a microecology, let alone a whole ecosystem and its dependent human economy, as in the Gulf today?

Apologists for coal have worked assiduously for decades, and the most they can come up with is that windmills might kill birds. I’ve not seen any real evidence, let alone reliable statistics, on that alleged risk. Have you?

Birds’ evolution has given their eyes extraordinary sensitivity to motion. Windmills move. So I think mass bird kills are inherently unlikely. And even if there is a small danger, we can use a minute fraction of the free power windmills generate to broadcast avian distress calls and keep the birds away, as we do now at some airports. To mix a fishy metaphor, the “bird risk” of windmills is the reddest of red herrings.

The fact is that wind and solar power have virtually zero risk, in the long term, medium term, and short term. The only relevant risk is that we will be too stupid to use them.

Windmills and solar cells also have two signal advantages than no “mainstream” energy source―even nuclear―can match. Once built and installed, they produce energy essentially for free, except for maintenance. They use no fuel. So they don’t require mining, drilling, refining, transporting and caring for fuel, as do nuclear, coal, oil, and even natural-gas power plants. And they create zero risk of global warming and zero pollution (apart from that required to make, transport and install them).

Solar cells are even better. They are “solid state.” They have fewer moving parts than an electronic calculator: no keys! So barring natural disasters, they should last a long, long time with minimal maintenance.

The sole disadvantage of wind and solar power is intermittency. The wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time. But there are places where the wind does blow, or the sun does shine, almost every day. And this very year will see the mass production of large lithium batteries, which can store that power in widely distributed locations, where it is not vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorism, as are centralized power plants of any kind.

The batteries will appear in electric cars, or in so-called “serial” hybrids that can run on battery power alone. GM’s Chevy Volt will be the first, scheduled for late fall. The Nissan Leaf will follow in 2011, and Ford, Tesla, Toyota and others will follow in 2012. Every one of these cars will have a robust lithium battery capable of providing power to the average household for several days.

So we have a choice. We can continue to incur horrendous long-term, medium-term and short-term risks by relying on oil as our sole source of energy for transportation. Or we can switch to electricity generated by risk-free and marginal-cost-free means. We can convert in a decade or less if we make the decision to do so. All it takes is investment and will.

My hope is that the change will start from the grass roots, in what Sarah Palin calls the “real” America. If you live in small town and have some money or a good bank, you can start right away, by yourself and with your neighbors. Just buy some solar panels and a small windmill, suitable for your town. Then buy some good batteries with AC/DC converters―one for each home and small business―from one of the car companies or their Japanese or Korean suppliers.

Then go “off the grid,” relax and gloat. No more electric bills, ever! When you can afford one, buy an electric car, too. Then no more gasoline bills, either. And no more diverting good cropland to biofuels.

If you do that, not only will you cut your long-, medium- and short- term power risk, plus your carbon footprint. In the long run you will save money, as fossil fuels get more expensive. You will cut pollution. You will create American jobs. (The Internet can’t install windmills, solar cells, and batteries!) And you will improve our nation’s strategic independence and cut its reliance on petrostates, including sponsors of terrorism.

Windmills, solar panels and batteries are perfect for us Americans. They have human scale. Although corporations can install and own them, they don’t require corporations. A single person or a few neighbors can buy and install them. They can make a family, a town, or a locality independent and self-reliant. They are just what our spirit of individualism demands.

So let’s get busy. We can do this, America! And we should. Do it for your kids!

QUOTE OF THE WEEK (New Feature): “The election outcome should be received as an opportunity for self-examination.” Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s President, commenting on local elections in which voters chastized his party and its his harder line against North Korean in reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan.

Where might we be if Republican leaders, especially Messrs. Boehner and McConnell, had shown such humility and moderation after 2008?

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