Thursday, May 08, 2008

What do you think? No, really, I want to know!

They are a variety of people who read this meandering mess of a blog, and I decided that I wanted to probe you various minds and ways of thought regarding hot-topic issues of the day.

What do you think of the various economic plans being proposed to help relieve today's economic crunch? Especially those relating to the energy sector (e.g. a gas-tax holiday, windfall profits tax proposals, diversion of money/profits to research in alternative fuels and renewable power)?

Surely between all three or so of us who read this blog we have some different opinions on what is going on and what we need to be doing both to make things better today and in the future. And it also occurs to me that, being a researcher who works in the energy industry, I could possibly answer some of the questions you've been dying to ask but never knew who to turn to. I could explain the process of drilling for and recovering oil (and in the process, explain why the global oil reserves estimate has not really changed in three decades). Or I could tell you about fuel cells (I've worked with them some, as well).

So, let me pick your brain, and I will let you pick mine. Anyone up for such an exchange?

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Cristy said...

This question hurts my brain. I'd be happy if you would tell me to fill up my gas tank before it goes from $3.65 to $3.85 like it did last night...when I needed gas!

euphrony said...

Okay, Cristy - fill up your tank before the price goes up 20 cents overnight.

I don't know if that will help you any, but there you go. As to exactly when the price will go up or down, I am as aware as anyone else.

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard a decent long-term strategy yet. Politicians are completely disinterested in anything that won't bear fruit for 10-20 years since there's no way they'll be able to take credit for it.

I suppose I figure that the real solutions are up to me. I need to be a good steward of energy resources. Not because the government says so or because I'll "save the world", but because it's the responsible thing to do not to consume more than necessary.

Gas tax holiday might be nice, but it's not exactly a solution. It doesn't really change anything. It just shorts the government in the short term money that they'll take back from me later. Thus, I'm indifferent towards it.

I don't expect the government to lead the way in alternative fuel research. I do expect it of the private sector funded by my bigmouth billionaire colleagues in the entertainment industry. It's about time the blowhards put their money where their mouth is instead of into bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger bling, and generally into themselves.

NatCh said...

I saw a very interesting possible alternative recently. It's kind of involved to understand the plan, but a real solution would have to be, wouldn't it?

Here's the URL of the article:

euphrony said...

I agree that if the deep pockets offered more than hot air and hypocrisy then more work could be done. The trouble come in that some areas can only advance so far, and throwing more money at them won't make a substantial difference. Invention and innovation happen in leaps, not incremental change. Where money is most helpful is implementation of an insight once it is recognized.

Every analysis of the gas tax holiday comes to the same conclusion: drop the price and people will feel more free to drive, thus increasing demand, thus increasing price until you're back where you started. The difference being none of the money goes to the government. It's a political chew toy, thrown to the dogs to make them happy but ultimately does nothing.

Read the article. It is definitely an ambitious plan, and ambition is what is needed to make a real change in how things are done. One thing that stuck out to me was the blithe assumption that by 2050 most cars would be plug-in hybrids that would get most of their power from the grid and not the gas station. I'm not so sure the idea of durable plug-in hybrids has been demonstrated well enough for such an assumption.

One thing many people confuse is energy independence (independent from foreign oil) and the generation of power for the nation. As far as electric generation goes, we are very nearly independent - we export more coal and gas than we import, I do believe, and thus can supply ourselves for electric generation. It is automobiles, mostly, and the chemical industry that use crude oil. Unless their vision of widespread plug-in cars (or similar ideas where cars get most of their energy from the grid) becomes plausible, then the dream of energy independence can only come true through increased domestic oil production. The dream of corn-derived ethanol has quite stupendously proven itself a fallacy; other ethanol sources have simply not been on the radar of most people and they aren't ready to make use of them.

NatCh said...

That's an excellent point about the plug in hybrid cars -- I have serious doubts about the batteries, both in durability, and in the cost of replacing the rascals, as well as the more common disposal related concerns.

But what if you were able to substitute cars that run on only compressed air? :D

Those are still on the early side, but they're a lot farther along than I expected them to be when I started looking at them, and the notion is pretty exciting. Watch the vids though, the write-up isn't all that informative, really. (shrug)

Anonymous said...

Hi E., great topic. As a 4th reader who has a question, I'm wondering relative to alternative fuel sources whether environmental concerns around drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska are now getting in the way of our country possibly lessening our dependence of foreign oil or is that just another political spin?

NatCh said...

I think that we need to be looking very seriously at alternatives, but the bald, inescapable fact of the matter is that at the moment, our entire civilization is petroleum based: we have to have and use petroleum in order to come up with those alternatives.

As far as ANWR drilling goes, when you're talking about 2000 acres in an area the size of North Carolina, I can't help thinking that the extent of even an outright environmental disaster on that small a scale would be relatively manageable, and I don't know of any reason to believe that such a disaster is even mildly likely. (shrug)

In any case, I'm sure that more than 2000 acres have been developed in North Carolina by now, and that's worked out okay so far. :)

euphrony said...

Are environmental concerns around drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska are now getting in the way of our country possibly lessening our dependence of foreign oil?

The simple answer is, of course, yes. The complex answer is that many of the environmental regs are good; however, when public opinion and not fact rule the day, then legislation often becomes punitive against those restricted or NIMBY (not in my back yard). The repercussions of an accident while drilling or an oil spill can be huge, but those incidents are rare. Think of air travel, which is actually safer than driving but accidents usually involve huge casualties and so look worse.

There are many ways that reservoirs such as in ANWR or the vast reserves off-shore of California, could be tapped in a safe manner. This would be a big boost, but still not sufficient to make us independent of foreign oil. You just can't change the fact that Saudi Arabia sits on something like a quarter of the oil in the world. I've not seen exact numbers, but I don't think that the US has enough oil reserves to supply our voracious appetite. Natural gas is another story - we do have a lot of that; but like I said we already export more than we import.

Like Natch said, we are a petroleum-based society. We use it for fuel, the most commonly referenced use, but oil and natural gas are also used heavily in the chemicals and plastics industries. As long as we use plastic bags and plastic furniture and plastic everything, then we will need a lot of petroleum. There are plenty of opportunities to change, on an individual level, but few are cheap. Using E85 fuel ends up costing you around 20% more than gasoline (factoring in the 30% drop in mpg). Photovoltaic cells can be installed on homes, but they are expensive (even with tax breaks) and many homeowners associations and cities prohibit their installation as "unattractive" and because they will lower home values. The only ideas out there are not palatable to the public, for various reasons, and so the politicians do what they need to get reelected.

Douglas said...

"a gas-tax holiday, windfall profits tax proposals, diversion of money/profits to research in alternative fuels and renewable power"

a gas tax holiday seems bogus to me for reasons people have cited above.

Regarding windfall profits tax proposals, I'm not sure. My kneejerk is that this will take money away from an industry that is capital intensive in the R&D arena at a critical time. I really don't know the specifics of the proposals, though, so maybe it wouldn't have that impact.

Regarding renewable power research, I've seen estimates that wind power can totally replace petroleum, but I don't buy it. It seems to me that we need in the long term to implement something based more on nuclear energy taking advantage of technologies like hydrogen fuel cells. The biggest problems I see with with hydrogen fuel cells, though is the lack of distribution and the massive increase in electricity production that would be required for its full implementation. While we produce electricity mostly from domestic sources, doubling capacity is a huge undertaking.

Regarding securing gas reserves, I've heard that India and China are kicking our buts securing foreign gas reserves and that the US government is hindering US companies from pursuing them. That was from one fox news snippet, though, so I'm not sure how much to trust it. Also, it seems like getting entangled in foreign reserves is sometimes a mixed blessing, entailing the compromising of principles. Countries with gas reserves have often found them to be a source of wealth for only the wealthy, leaving behind the vast majority of residents and breeding resentment and civil unrest.

What is your take on oil reserves, both domestic and abroad (as in how long can they keep up with increasing demand)? Also, what is your take on the accompanying ethical issues surrounding the development of foreign oil reserves and how we are doing in that arena? Long term (100 years from now), what do you see as the likely energy source balance (nuclear, renewable, natural gas, petroleum, etc.)? Do you think we will see major shifts in the balance in the near term (10-20 years out)?

Douglas said...

Also, what do you think of the following proposals, especially the first one?

Douglas said...

So, do you think that gas prices will stay at the $3.50-$4.00 level for the foreseeable future. I've been considering getting a scooter for my commute, but it only makes economic sense if
a) I don't get hit by a car (medical bills make gas look cheap). and
b) gas prices stay really high for 3-5 years, depending on what kind of deal I can get on a newer bike and accompanying gear.

I am really unsure about B, and thus am waiting for a couple more years. What does your crystal ball say will happen?


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