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

20 May 2019

Ten Practical Reasons to Dump Oil as an Energy Source for Ground Transportation

For an essay on why we must compete peacefully with China and what we must do to win, click here. For an essay on Elizabeth Warren’s qualifications for the presidency, click here. For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

For this principle post on oil, click here.

The Huawei Tech Block: the NYT and the Trump Administration Get it Wrong

In a front-page print-edition story (Tuesday, May 21, 2019 at A1), the New York Times today reported the Trump Administration’s executive order blocking the transfer of certain American technology to the Chinese blockbuster 5G telecomm firm Huawei. But in a missed opportunity to inform the public and China what’s really going on, the story never hits the nail on the head.

The story reviews China’s separate, censored Internet and its growing success in exporting low-priced high-tech products like smart phones to Europe and the world. The story name-calls what is going on now an “Iron Curtain” in trade, being built for the first time from both sides. But it fails to put its finger on the essential reason to build the wall from the US side.

The Trump Administration might be making the same mistake. Its pretext for the Huawei Tech Block is “national security.” It cites the fear that Huawei, in supplying hardware and software for the free world’s 5G networks, might insert hardware or software “back doors” into its systems, allowing China to use them to spy and steal information. Even if Huawei isn’t doing so now, the reasoning goes, Chinese law lets the Chinese government force it to do so on command.

These fears face the future. There is no evidence that Huawei is doing any of this now, or that the Chinese government has ordered it. The fear is rational, but it addresses only possible future danger.

In contrast, the destruction of the free world’s middle class is well under way. It’s responsible for the Trump presidency and the rise of like-minded right-wing (so-called “populist”) leaders worldwide. Among many other things, it has driven the opioid epidemic, pushing formerly normal middle class workers to kill themselves with drugs to drown the pain of job loss, a dismal future, and cultural stagnation.

What’s destroying the West’s middle class? The forced migration of jobs, factories, technology and manufacturing prowess to China. China has become a turbine-charged drain not just of brains, but of manufacturing brawn and technology. It’s draining the West dry, especially the US.

Contrary to popular belief and the Trump Administration’s combative rhetoric, this is not all China’s fault. Western capitalists have willingly—even enthusiastically—built and manned the drains. China’s low-cost labor and huge market gave them a chance to get rich quickly, to grow their corporate empires, and to penetrate vast new markets, including ones outside the US and China. The price they paid was not theirs to pay: selling out the West’s technological infrastructure in a way certain to deprive our middle class of good jobs and bright futures for as far forward as anyone can see.

No one in government or our elite wants to talk about this. Certainly no oligarch does. They all want to pretend this gigantic drain never happened. But if Ross Perot was right about the “giant sucking sound” of jobs going to Canada and Mexico, the sound of jobs and technology draining to China was the sound of 1.3 billion turbines.

Like the oligarchs, Trump wants us to believe that this was all his predecessors’ fault—the fault of weak government. Isn’t that just like blaming the Crash of 2008 entirely on government regulators, and not the bankers who actually pulled the triggers?

Regardless how much our leaders try to conceal its real justification, this technology-transfer blockage is long overdue. Neither the US nor any other Western country can sustain a high-tech infrastructure or economy if all its best ideas migrate to China in search of low labor costs and China’s big market. The drain had to stop somewhere, somehow, and the Huawei Tech Block is as good a time and place as any.

Up to now Trump has been running our trade fight with China like an ill-trained drunk throwing random roundhouse punches. Tariffs on steel, aluminum, and consumer stuff don’t even aim at the real target: the draining of our technological infrastructure. Like any random roundhouse punch, they can just as easily dislocate a shoulder or harm innocent bystanders as cause the target real and instructive harm. The Huawei Tech Block is our first well-placed uppercut in what promises to be a long and difficult fight.

It’s right because it addresses directly the primary cause of our national malaise: the steady sale of our technology and technological infrastructure to China. It’s right also because, unlike general tariffs, it doesn’t entirely destroy the intricate international web of trade and supply chains already built up, on which the world’s economy depends.

What the Huawei Tech Block does do is give China notice that the days of a one-way drain of technology and infrastructure to China are numbered. Henceforth the US must and will maintain a separate technological infrastructure in order to preserve its ability to innovate and the middle class that is the bulwark of its democracy.

A lot of hard work lies ahead. We must spread the tech block to other strategic sectors and industries. But we must do so carefully, methodically and strategically, with detailed expert judgment on which sectors we can dominate and which have already fallen to China.

This will be a long, difficult and minutely strategic economic struggle, to be managed only by leaders who know what they are doing and have expert advice and counsel every step of the way. It will involve both competition and cooperation, lest the world slide into an economic recession or depression, or (worse yet) an unthinkable real war with China.

This struggle will be hard for us as a traditionally open society. But we Americans will have to learn the ways of secrecy if we are to remain at the forefront of human innovation, let alone to preserve our middle class and our democracy.

The Principal post on oil follows:

Yes, global warming is an existential threat to our species. Yes, burning oil accelerates global warming, which, by virtue of all the “artificial” CO2 in our atmosphere now, is already baked in (pardon the pun). So yes, our youth are right to urge us to dump oil for that reason alone.

But that is only one of many practical reasons to stop using oil as a primary fuel for ground transportation as soon as humanity can practically manage to do so. Here, in brief summary, are ten other good reasons, in rough order of importance:

1. Oil is running out, probably within the lifetimes of children born this year. This table shows several estimates of the remaining life of all known global oil reserves, made back in 2013—six years ago—under varying assumptions about the accuracy of reserve figures. The estimates range from 18 to 43 years from then, or 12 to 37 years from now.

2. Oil is already an insecure resource. By far the largest known reserves of oil lie in the most geopolitically insecure and unstable regions, including the Middle East and Venezuela. (The only region arguably more unstable today is the Korean Peninsula.)

There is nothing anyone can do about this; that’s where the world’s biggest reserves are. This fact makes the lifeline of energy for much of the world (outside of Russia) insecure and unstable. Europe’s and China’s abject dependence on oil for vital energy supplies increases the risk of another world war, which could go nuclear.

3. Fracking makes the United States more independent, but its sustainability is uncertain. The common refrain that “technology will always find more oil” is a hope and a prayer, not a strategy. In the century or so since oil became a global energy mainstay, mankind has not discovered any new oil field with anything like the reserves of Saudi Arabia’s or Venezuela’s.

Our species’ hunt for more big oil strikes has failed despite astronomical investment and a century of increasingly sophisticated exploration techniques. Those techniques include seismic exploration, undersea searches, superconducting magnetometers, exquisitely sensitive gravitometers, and ground-penetrating radar. In replicating the strikes in Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, those technological wells came up dry.

The notion that advances in technology will lead to the discovery of gigantic new fields, when they have failed to do so in over a century, is nothing more than blind faith. In the past, competent governments and wise industrialists didn’t bank on blind faith. They shouldn’t do so now.

4. “Fracking” is only a temporary expedient, a stopgap. The reason is simple: it’s almost impossible to estimate the capacity of fracked reservers with anything like the accuracy of estimates for big underground pools like the Saudis’ and Venezuela’s. Fracking works—and is needed—only where the oil is distributed among shale in innumerable little deposits or “veins” of vastly varying size, shape and depth. Not only does this fact make it hard to estimate the total recoverable volume; it’s harder still to estimate the cost of recovering the oil, even from the layers that appear subject to practical recovery.

Fracking has worked well to wean the United States off the Saudi oil tit. But only blind faith suggests it’s a medium-term, let alone a long-term, solution.

5. When oil runs out—and it will—as a primary global source of energy, it will leave behind the largest and most useless collection of stranded assets in human history. All the things used to find, extract, refine and transport oil, as well as all the machines that burn it and the factories to make them, will become useless. The list includes exploration equipment (all the stuff noted in point 3), drilling equipment (on land and offshore), derricks, tanks, tankers, tank cars, pumps, pipelines, the internal combustion engines in cars, trucks, railroad locomotives, ships, and planes, and all the factories that make these things.

Some of these assets might be repurposed for natural gas, but it, too, is running out, albeit more slowly. The expense of converting the parts of this enormous infrastructure that can be converted is unknown and likely to be enormous.

Only one thing is certain. The nation(s) or region(s) left holding the bag of stranded infrastructure as oil runs out will be the ones whose economies tank first and worst.

6. Oil is vulnerable to natural disasters, sabotage and war in a way that solar and wind energy are not. Oil’s vulnerable at three centralized places: the oil fields, the refineries, and the means of distribution: pipelines, tankers, trains and truck depots.

Fracked oil is less vulnerable than conventional oil because it requires many distributed wells. But the difference in vulnerability isn’t great, and there is no difference in oil’s vulnerability while being refined, or while in transport to distant markets, for example, through long pipelines or on ships. How easy those pipes and ships would be for drones to bomb!

The recent confrontation with Iran and the recent Houti drone attacks on Saudi oil assets have focused attention on how vulnerable are the world’s chief transportation energy sources. It’s relatively easy for a minor power like Iran, or for terrorists, to maim the free world’s and China’s supplies. This point applies even more strongly to Venezuela’s huge reserves (if they ever again start producing at capacity), for they are far less hardened by major-power planning and attention than the Saudis’.

The only major global oil reserves that are presently hardened from attack by a major power and located in areas not prone to natural disasters are Russia’s. That fact should give scant comfort to China, Japan, Europe, South Korea, and the United States.

Solar and wind power have none of these disadvantages. They are intrinsically distributed resources because the sun shines and the wind blows almost everywhere. Their technology and economics also permit them to be actually distributed close to their points of use, where they are spread out and less vulnerable to disasters or attack. Every house and business could have a solar array like mine and could use it to power an electric car like mine, or a small truck.

7. Oil prices are unstable and are likely to rise and fluctuate unpredictably as oil comes closer to running out. Oil prices are vulnerable to spikes in times of uncertainty, whether due to geopolitics (as now) or extreme weather affecting oil fields, refineries or oil transport. In contrast, the costs of solar and wind power depend primarily on the cost of making and installing the solar arrays and windmills, because they use no fuel.

In general, that cost is known, predictable, stable and declining. Once it is fixed for a particular solar array or wind farm, it is invulnerable to change.

Advances in the technology of solar arrays and windmills and their manufacturing and installation are likely to drive the price of solar and wind power down further as time goes on. In contrast, the price of oil is likely to rise—in general, if not always in temporary market fluctuations—as supply gets shorter near runout. As for wind power, it may actually benefit from global warming, as more unstable weather and bigger storms produce more powerful winds.

8. For road transportation—our species’ principal use of oil—that fuel is already nearly twice as expensive per mile as alternatives. As of this writing, the average US retail cost of regular gasoline (all grades and formulations, for May 13, 2019) was $2.942 per gallon. A small car that gets 40 miles to the gallon would thus require about seven cents per mile (7.36 cents, to be exact). The average US residential retail cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity (from all sources in February 2019) was 12.7 cents. At 3 miles per kilowatt-hour (the general parameter for electric cars, including Teslas, Leafs and Volts), the energy cost per mile is 4.23 cents.

As distinguished from the cost of driving on electricity from all current sources, the energy cost of driving on solar photovoltaic power, with presently available technology used in large, commercial-scale solar arrays, can be as low as 0.9 or even 0.6 cents per mile. (These figures come from first-principle calculations, excluding the cost of any batteries, smart grids, or other means of smoothing the natural variability of solar power. For driving, it makes sense to exclude those considerations because an electric car’s own batteries smooth those fluctuations as they charge.)

9. Solar arrays and windmills produce no pollution, except in manufacturing them. Oil produces air pollution in its process of refining, transport and use, and air, ground and water pollution in its process of extraction. Even with undesirable means of generating electricity like coal and natural gas, running cars and trucks on electricity from countryside power stations can pull air pollution out of crowded cities, reduce asthma attacks, and improve public health.

10. Solar and wind power are much safer for the workers who provide it, and for the environment, than oil. Solar and wind power involve nothing like oil spills, earthquakes, blowouts, pollution of drinking water with drilling compounds, inadvertent methane releases, explosions, or burnoffs. There will never be a Deepwater Horizon disaster in installing solar arrays or windmills, even offshore, because there’s no volatile fossil fuel or gas to explode.

As for maintenance, solar arrays and windmills require nothing like the risk to workers of maintaining producing oil wells, refining crude oil or transporting crude or gasoline. Six years of maintaining my own home solar array required only replacing a couple of dozen cable ties and using a broom to clear snow off the solar panels after a few storms.

* * *

Oil is a doomed resource. It’s doomed in so many ways, besides the fact that it, like coal and natural gas, is changing our planet’s climate radically from the one in which we evolved.

It’s running out, most likely in the lifetimes of children born today. It will certainly run out that soon if we don’t cut down on burning it so profligately. When it runs out, the cities and nations that are ready will leap ahead of those that are not, economically, militarily and in every other way. Those that are not ready will be less secure, poorer and unhappier. Some nations and cities may suffer sustained hardship and suffering, as their transportation systems and even their agriculture grind to a halt.

In the meantime, societies higher up the learning curve will have cheaper, more secure energy for their transportation, with far less vulnerability to attack and disruption, less air, water and ground pollution, and lower energy prices that don’t jump or rise. If we are to maintain our citizens’ trust and their standard of living, we must be among those leading societies.

Footnote: At present, we have no viable substitutes for oil in air and sea transportation. We might use wind for sea transportation, with much more sophisticated technology than our ancestors used. There is also a chance of using hydrogen from water electrolyzed with renewable power for both sea and air transportation.

But those approaches require additional research and development. We have the technology right now to convert our cars and small trucks to run on electricity from renewable sources. All we require is the will to convert and some investment.

Among the many reasons to convert is preserving remaining reserves of oil for sea and air transportation and for use as feedstocks for chemicals and medicines. It took millions of years for Nature to give us those convenient chemical starting points. Synthesizing them from scratch would be expensive in dollars, time and energy. We shouldn’t burn them up to do what the wind and sun can do for us almost for free.

Links to Popular Recent Posts

For discussion why we must cooperate with China and how we can compete successfully with China, click here.
For reasons why Trump’s haphazard trade war will not win the competition with China, click here.
For a deeper discussion of how badly we Americans have failed to plan our future, click here.
For an essay on Elizabeth Warren’s qualifications for the presidency, click here.
For comment on how not doing our jobs has brought us Americans low, click here.
To see how modern politics has come to resemble the Game of Thrones, click here.
For a discussion of the waste of energy and fossil fuels caused by unneeded long-range batteries in electric cars, click here.
For a discussion why Democrats should embrace the long campaign season and make no premature moves, click here.
For a discussion how Trump and Brexit have put the tree world into free fall, click here.
For a review of how our own American acts help create our president’s claimed “invasion” of Central American migrants, click here.
For a review of basic facts that must inform any type of universal health insurance, click here.
For a discussion of how the West’s fall and China’s rise affect the chances of our species’ survival, click here.
For a discussion of what the Mueller Report is and how its release could affect American politics, click here.
For a note on the Mueller Report as the beginning of a process, click here.
For comment on the special candidacies of Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, click here.
For reasons why the twin 737 Max 8 disasters should inspire skepticism and caution with regard to potentially lethal uses of software and AI, click here.
For my message to Southwest Airlines on grounding the 737 Maxes, click here.
For an example of even the New York Times spewing propaganda, click here.
For means by which high-school teachers could help save American democracy, click here.
For a modern team of rivals that might comprise a dream Cabinet in 2021, click here.
For an analysis of the global decline of rules-based civilization, click here. For a brief note on avoiding health lobbying Armageddon, click here.
For analysis of how to save real news and America’s ability to see straight, click here.
For an update on how Zuckerberg scams advertisers, click here.
For analysis of how Facebook scams voters and society, click here.
For the consequences of Trump’s manufactured border emergency, click here.
For a brief note on Colin Kaepernick’s good work and settlement with the NFL, click here.
For an outline of universal health insurance without coercion, disruption of satisfactory private insurance, or a trace of “socialism,” click here.
For analysis of the Virginia blackface debacle, click here. For an update on how Twitter subverts politics, click here.
For analysis of women’s chances to take the presidency in 2020, click here.
For brief comment on Trump’s State of the Union Speech and Stacey Abrams’ response for the Dems, click here.
For reasons why the Huawei affair requires diplomacy, not criminal prosecution, click here. For how Speaker Pelosi has become a new sheriff in town, click here.
For how Trump’s misrule could kill your kids, click here.
For comment on MLK Day 2019 and the structural legacies of slavery, click here.
For reasons why the partial government shutdown helps Dems the longer it lasts, click here.
For a discussion of how our national openness hurts us and what we really need from China, click here.
For a brief explanation of how badly both Trump and his opposition are failing at “the art of the deal,” click here.
For a deep dive into how Apple tries to thwart Google’s capture of the web-browser market, click here.
For a review of Speaker Pelosi’s superb qualifications to lead the Democratic Party, click here.
For reasons why natural-gas and electric cars are essential to national security, click here.
For additional reasons, click here.
For the source of Facebook’s discontents and how to save democracy from it, click here.
For Democrats’ core values, click here.
The Last Adult is Leaving the White House. Who will Shut Off the Lights?
For how our two parties lost their souls, click here.
For the dire portent of Putin’s high-fiving the Saudi Crown Prince, click here.
For updated advice on how to drive on the Sun’s power alone, or without fossil fuels, click here.
For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here.

Links to Posts since January 23, 2017

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