Calls for Offshore Drilling and More Nuclear Plants May Be Ill-Advised

Panic over rising energy costs is something we can’t afford.  It would be easy to panic about energy supplies when faced with the 33% gasoline price rise in 16 weeks such as I documented here in the Detroit area.  Panic doesn’t put one in the mood to make sound choices, however.  Now conservatives, some of whom stand to make a lot of money if their advice is followed, are telling everyone that we in the US need to start drilling for oil on our continental shelves (link) and in previously forbidden parts of Alaska, and that more investment in new fission-based nuclear power plants is needed (link).  I believe that, once again, those with profit motives are going to try to play on the fears and desires of average citizens in order to become richer.  Fortunately there are many more who have opposed increased oil drilling and more nuclear power plants (link), and with good reasons. 

Keeping our oil in the ground makes sense.  I can understand why many would oppose drilling for oil in new parts of the U.S. and its coastal waters.  I have another reason for joining them, but not one that I have heard cited elsewhere: If we have oil reserves, why “sell them cheap”?  We are seeing the value of oil increase rapidly, and projections that it could double in price within another five to ten years.  If we can stretch out our oil, continue to get it elsewhere, and make adjustments in our economy to survive, in the future our then-much-more-valuable oil could provide a long-term boost to our economy.

Fission power is not an answer to our current problems.  I can also understand why certain political candidates and representatives (and a lot of other people) aren’t in favor of fission-based nuclear power.  It produces extremely dangerous waste products, costs a huge amount, and both requires and produces materials that can be used to make some of the most horrible and destructive weapons ever devised.  Beyond that, it takes ten years or more to build such a plant.  If better technologies capable of providing similar quantities of energy (such as fusion) were to become available in the next ten or twenty years, much of the investment in fission-based nuclear plants would be wasted.  For this reason, utilities involved in nuclear power might hold back on new construction anyway.

Bridging the gap between oil and fusion power with alternative energy sources makes a lot of sense.  I would rather that we put more funds into renewable energies (solar, wind) and fusion power, which could be producing energy in quantity in as little as two decades (if we’re lucky).  The nice thing about electrical power sources is that we already have the electrical distribution infrastructure in place in most countries, and it doesn’t require fossil fuels or extra energy (besides electrical losses) to move the energy around. 

Government action is needed in the direction of sustainability, not cheaper oil.  I hope we can get governments to take steps to make solar, wind, and natural energy sources economically viable for communities and individuals so that widespread adoption will occur.  Making fossil fuels cheaper works against that, however.  I realize the big energy companies are going to fight this, as it takes away from their control of the energy market and profitability, but the more decentralized our energy sources are, the more reliable and independent they will be.  A system to connect your home to the electrical grid, allowing you to take power out when you need to and contribute power in when you have it to spare, costs not much more than one of the better furnaces.  Electric cars are here now for low mileage uses, and battery technology is improving to stretch their range and reduce charging time, making them increasingly practical. 

The inevitable transition away from fossil fuels will be easier on everyone if we diversify our sources and plan for the long term now.  While a variety of energy sources such as ethanol, natural gas, and hydrogen will be needed in the next two to five decades, optimally efficient energy sources must eventually prevail as fossil fuels become too expensive for daily use by the average person.  Hopefully we will have fusion-derived electricity before we have to rely solely on solar, wind, and water power, but, if we don’t, we will need the best solar, wind, and water power systems we can get, and a lot of them.  Cheaper oil only stalls this process and increases our risks.  Interestingly, in 1986 Dick Cheney, after introducing a bill to impose a tax on imported oil, said “Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.”  He was right, but probably not for any good reason.

Make your wishes known where they can do some good.  Government is supposed to work for the people, but your representatives only know what they hear, so if you want them to do the right thing you need to tell them what it is.  If they only hear from the energy companies they may not do the things that will benefit and protect you.  Please contact your elected and appointed representatives and make it clear that we need alternative energy sources, that economic incentives are needed so people will be able to justify investment in home energy sources, and that incentives (and, possibly, regulations) are needed that will motivate energy companies to make such investments easier and more cost effective for individuals.  If you don’t make yourself heard by your representatives, you will have no influence at all.

As always, I welcome your comments.

 Interesting reading:
Arctic Drilling Wouldn’t Cool High Oil Prices, May 23, 2008, Marianne Lavelle, US News & World Report
Permit Puts Shell Oil Closer to Arctic Drilling, June 19, 2008, Jeannette J. Lee, The Associated Press via the Anchorage Daily News
EIA/DOE Annual Energy Outlook 2004 with Projection to 2025, Dec. 4, 2004, Ronald R. Cooke, Peak Oil News  (How wrong could they be? – Tim)


7 responses to “Calls for Offshore Drilling and More Nuclear Plants May Be Ill-Advised

  1. Well yeah. Conservatives will make a lot of money drilling for oil. Best that they not get the money. The Saudis deserve it more.

    And yes we need the sustainability. And while we are waiting for that glorious day it is best if poor people get destroyed. Only Conservatives are truly compassionate, eh comrade? The rest of us know the real score. Sacrifices must be made. Who better to sacrifice than the poor?

    And the hundreds of billion barrels of oil shale and tar sands? Let us not count that as a resource.

    I think the best thing would be more resource wars and less drilling for oil in America. Some one inform the Democrat Congress. I think they could glide to victory on such a program.

    No Blood For Oil or No Drilling For Oil?

  2. Mr. Simon – I think you are missing my point. I’m not against anyone making money, but feel that the short-sighted people who want to make a quick buck in a way that creates more problems for the rest of us in the long term are not worthy of our support. The people pushing for this are espoused conservatives. That’s the only connection. Nobody, whatever their politics, should be doing things that are bad for everyone in the long term. Even Dick Cheney, back in 1986, said “Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.”

    Sustainability is not something that will happen on any “glorious day”, either. We probably won’t ever be “there”, but we will certainly be forced to move in that direction or see our population and standard of living greatly reduced.

    I really don’t understand your comment about “sacrificing the poor”, either. If cheap oil gained by draining American resources causes us to delay development of alternative energy sources, we are only compounding the rates of change we will experience when prices rise again, and it is likely those prices will rise much more quickly than we’re seeing today.

    As for the oil in the shale and tar sands, the cost of extracting them is still too high to make them practical, so they won’t be developed until prices are still higher and times are accordingly tougher. In addition, the ecological impact of recovering that oil may make the task even more difficult and expensive.

    Also, since you mention “resource wars”, it has been suggested that the wars the U.S. has waged in the Middle East have been at least partly motivated by the addiction to oil. I won’t go into the incredible cost, loss, and difficulty that have resulted, affecting the poor more than anyone. I hate to say it, but conservatives promoted those wars from the very start. If the Democrats glide to victory it is because the Republicans greased the slide for them.

    I’d say thanks for the comment, but it seems so sarcastic and skewed … if I hadn’t seen a benefit in responding I wouldn’t have allowed it to be published. Please try to be more straightforward and rational if you comment again. I intend this blog to contain serious discussion.
    Thanks – Tim

  3. I think your while line of reasoning is based on the misbelieve that alternative fuels can do anything to wean us off of oil. All of the alternatives are niche players because they both can’t provide the quantity of energy necessary to replace fossil fuels and they can’t provide it in a cost effective way. With oil prices rising as they are they may meet at some point in the not too distant future, but this still won’t help the first problem.

    Solar doesn’t produce power at night so its a non-starter.

    Wind requires an overinvestment because you have to have 1.5 to 2 times (wild guess but its probably ballpark) the necessary production to compensate for when the wind doesn’t blow.

    Geothermal and hydroelectric are limited in application.

    Nuclear is your best bet and liberals would never allow.

    As for fossil fuels, there is still enough fuel for centuries.


  4. Thanks for the comment, MikeEE.

    I guess I didn’t emphasize the difficulty of reducing our energy footprints enough, but I have written about it elsewhere. It is certainly a huge challenge. Estimates have suggested that, in the absence of nuclear (hopefully fusion) power, we have to cut back to around 5% of our current energy use to achieve a sustainable level, depending on the population at the time – more people meaning less energy per person. Five percent is hard to imagine, but if we could achieve something approaching that, solar and wind power could supply a much larger percentage of our needs.

    I beg to differ on the renewables – they may not produce the quantities of energy we consume today, but their intermittent nature doesn’t make them a non-starter. There are a variety of ways to store energy for when the sun is down or the wind is still.

    I agree that many people are too worried about waste disposal and other risks to approve of more of the current fission-based nuclear power, but fission reactors take 10-15 years to come on line anyway. It is quite probable that that money would be better spent on accelerating development of alternatives, especially fusion-based nuclear power, and maybe even space-based solar collector systems or some other radical technology.

    As for there being enough fossil fuel for centuries, in an April 29th 2008 entry here I wrote:
    Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett says the statement that we have enough coal for a hundred years should be setting off alarm bells, as a century is not that long. To make matters worse, most such estimates do not take into account the growth rate, which, if we assume a 5% growth rate in consumption, says we will actually run out of coal in only 38 years (do the math – I did).

    As for oil, nobody projects it will last as long as coal, and it also is affected by increasing, not level, consumption. Also, when people cite huge numbers of barrels of oil available in the U.S. they ignore the fact that most of that is in oil shale and sand from which extraction is difficult and expensive. If it were economically feasible to extract it, wouldn’t the oil companies be tapping it now?

    Rising costs are inevitable, and the recent run-up in gas prices has really gotten Americans’ (and world) attention. That’s a good thing for our future, IMHO.
    Thanks again for your comment. – Tim

  5. Tim,

    I think you are misguided in your opinion regarding drilling for oil. Leaving oil in the ground becuase it may be more expensive later is not wise, because technology will make it worthless at some point. It could take five years or fifty years, but technology will eventually cause us to leave most of the oil in the ground becuase we will have moved on to something better and cheaper…and it will probably not one of the major “alternatives” they (or you) are talking about now.

    Regarding nuclear, again you are misguided. nuclear power offers the lowest cost per kilowatt hour of any other practical (on a large scale) source for power. It’s even cheaper than coal. The new desgins are 1000 times safer than current models and one of these new power plants could generate enough electricity to power an average sized state AND generate enough heat to liquify coal into 50,000 barrels of oil per day. 50 of these would be able to produces 2.5 million barrels a day and power the entire country’s electrical needs.

    The waste can be dealt with if congress would approve storage in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

    A note about coal, in 2006 the US EIA estimated the world has 164 years of coal at current production based on proven reserves. There’s no way your 5% growth rate (which is probably high anyway) takes that number to 38 years. Again this is only based on proven reserves.

    Lastly your faith in govenrment solutions is hugely misguided. It’s because of government interference with the market (i.e. drilling limits) for energy that we have $4.00 gas today. Having the government ‘invest’ in alternative energy sources is also a waste, because the governement can’t act efficiently or effectively and is subject to politics.

    Take ethanol for example. The government subsidizes companies like AMD to turn corn into fuel so that costs the tax payers. It takes the equivalent energy in 1.73 gallons of gas to create a gallon of ethanol so we actually costing us more energy to produce than we get and now we have rising food prices because (among other reasons) we have less corn and soy beans (as farmers switch to corn) for food ethanol production uses more corn. And recently the government has mandaed even more ethanol production over the next several years. Sounds like a brilliant plan doesn’t it? One other thing you may not no about ethanol is the it has about 2/3 the energy of regular gas so your gas mileage will be that much worse.

    As far as your other alternative energy sources, if they were viable and cost effective, they would already be used more widely than they are (I believe the correct number is less than 2% of energy produced in the US). This even with the massive subsidies the governement is aleady providing.

    I really don’t see how any of what you’ve said here makes sense.


  6. Thanks for your comment, Troy.

    While it is painful to be told that none of what one has come to understand and expressed makes sense, to not publish your comment would be wrong. I would like to address at least some of your comments, as I have spent time learning about these issues and assume you have, too.

    It’s hard to know the future, and while you may be right that not tapping our oil reserves could leave some of it un-utilized and made worthless by technological advances, I’m not sure, given the pollution issues, that that would be a bad thing. At the rate that new technologies are currently projected to arrive, we’ll use incredible amounts more oil, probably over at least the next two decades, before any large scale substitutes such as nuclear fission or fusion systems are on-line and capable of substitution for fossil fuels.

    As for nuclear power, one source of cost info is:
    From the Peoria Journal Star
    Published Sunday, November 26, 2006

    It costs between 5.1 cents and 8.3 cents per kilowatt hour to produce nuclear electricity. That compares with the following:
    – 3.7 cents to 4.8 cents per kilowatt hour for energy produced by coal.
    – 3.5 cents to 4.8 cents per kilowatt hour for natural gas
    – 20.2 cents to 30.8 cents per kilowatt hour for solar.
    – 5.5 cents and 7.7 cents per kilowatt hour for wind.

    Source: University of Chicago estimates based on 2003 prices

    You need to back up your claims with data, Troy. According to the D.O.E. the largest of the new nuclear power plant designs only produces 1600 MW – far from the requirements of “an average sized state”.
    I also saw the 164 year coal supply figure, though I saw other sources with different numbers. According to the EIA “all countries, 1980-2005” report, coal production has been up and down until 2000, after which it has all been positive, with 2003-2005 showing in excess of 6% increase each year, possibly mostly because of increased demand in China and India. I doubt that their demand will decrease any time soon.

    I understand your opinions about government and I don’t share all of them. The government is the only game in town when it comes to such large scale matters, and there will always be politics and bureaucracy involved in any large human endeavor, whether it is government run or not (and anything involving energy production will be a huge endeavor). I don’t dispute that the government has mishandled energy policy, particularly under the current administration (though who could be sure, since they keep their dealings with energy companies secret). I can’t, however, lay the rising gasoline prices at their doorstep. More than one source I’ve read recently has suggested that any new oil fields would take at least ten years to produce much, so a rush to drilling in new areas does little to help us for quite some time to come. All I’m saying is that our money is better spent on more forward-looking alternatives.

    On alternative energy sources, there are a number of reasons they aren’t more widely used. The most important is that fossil fuel prices have been kept quite low, which makes the substitutes uneconomical. Keeping oil cheap longer only lengthens the time until we have alternatives in place. A second reason is that electric utility companies who might benefit from the extra capacity provided by home solar and wind systems see such systems as a loss of control and reduction in their profits, so they make it hard to sell power back into the grid, which in turn lengthens the payback period and makes the alternatives less economically viable. Saying that they would be used more widely if they were cost effective is backwards thinking. We know we will need them, and delaying their development only increases the risk and impact of rapidly rising fossil fuel prices. If oil and natural gas prices go up fast, you can bet that coal prices will follow as some of the demand (mostly power generation) is switched to the cheaper coal. I believe we need to look to and plan for the future, and stop trying to keep the past alive.

    Have you looked at the subsidies the government provides for alternative energy systems? I quoted out a solar system for my house last year, and what the government offers is far from enough to encourage such purchases or make them economically viable.

    I appreciate your comments, Troy, but would appreciate more data and rational discourse, and less calling me “misguided”. Pejorative comments help nobody. Let’s work towards a better future instead of crabbing about the government. Thanks – Tim

  7. There is certainly room for a good debate between the fusion power enthusiasts and the fossil fuel enthusiasts, especially since it will be some time before fusion power will be available in meaningful quantities. :-)

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