Archive for April, 2010

Oil forever, but at what cost?

2010/04/30

Not so long ago, drilling a well in the floor of the ocean in 5,000 feet of water was unheard of.  Most of the oil platforms in the Gulf Of Mexico stood in less than 1,000 feet of water, which still required advanced engineering to work.  But the easy oil is almost gone, the oil that lies close to the surface, or in shallow water.  Not only are wells being drilled in deeper water, but the depth of the wells themselves have grown substantially.

Drill ships have to be able to maintain their position over the well without being anchored to anything, which demands advanced electronics, and huge motors that can spin in 360 degree circles, called thrusters.  Much work must be carried out by remotely controlled robots, working on the sea floor, and the drill ships have to stay on station irregardless of the weather conditions, or else the pipe to the well will break.

To drill a hole over a foot in diameter thousands of feet into the earth takes huge amounts of power, and hundreds and hundreds of pieces of pipe, threaded together.  The work goes on around the clock, seven days a week.  Workers must live on the rig, spending weeks at a time hundreds of miles away from land.  Shift rotation is usually by helicopter, with supplies coming out on barges.

All of this means that the oil that is pumped out of these deep underwater wells is going to be very expensive.  And plans are in the works to drill in much deeper water, in some cases up to 10,000 feet of water, and wells going 3 miles into the earth.  The areas that President Obama wants to open up for production are in much shallower water, closer to the shorelines.  They have been protected from drilling because of concerns over environmental damage due to accidents.

The technology has advanced enough that such wells are fairly safe, because of a great deal of experience with them.  The well that is now leaking into the Gulf is one of the newest wells, in an area which has been undeveloped because of the costs of producing oil in such conditions.  But the steadily increasing price of crude oil has made deep ocean wells profitable, in spite of the costs.

We will never run out of oil, but at some point it is going to be too expensive to use as fuel.  When that point arrives depends on what actions we take to supplement oil as a source of energy.  What we are paying now for oil would have been more than enough to subsidize the development of high speed rail, mass transit, and more fuel efficient vehicles.  Our government believes in letting the market decide what is too expensive, which is fine, except that the market makes no provision for when oil becomes too expensive.

It is not the responsibility of energy companies to ensure that we make a smooth transition to alternate sources of energy, and it would be bad business to do so.  Maximizing profits means maintaining the status quo as long as possible, and then switch to the new source of energy as quickly as possible.  But who is going to assist the consumer, the business person, in making that huge switch?  Changing energy sources can be horribly expensive, especially if it must be done in a short period of time.

So, we are likely to see energy costs related to crude oil rise steadily, until they reach the point of causing economic breakdown, and then, suddenly, a new source of energy will replace oil, which will require new kinds of engines, new kinds of cars, new methods of using the energy, just when the economy is in shambles because energy costs have been so high.  Allowing more off-shore oil production will help keep energy costs down,  for a while, but they are still going to rise.  Will we use this time to prepare for the change to new sources of energy, or will we continue to pay whatever it costs for oil?  It is up to the government to prepare us for this, and the government is avoiding doing so, in order to help the oil companies be as profitable as possible.

Is this how capitalism is supposed to work?  Do we have to drive off a cliff before we realize that the direction we are traveling must change?  Is economic chaos the only way progress can occur?  Stay tuned to this station, because we will find out in the coming years.

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Republicans just say “No”

2010/04/20

The new strategy of the Republican party is to just say “No”.  No to anything that represents progress, because the Democrats are in control.  The Republicans are willing to sacrifice the working of government in order to take back control of that government.  To what end to they seek control?  To stop any attempt at new regulation of the financial sector, to stop implementation of the first attempt at health care reform.  To allow unbridled access to America’s parks and national forests for resource extraction.  To insure that the rich get richer, and that middle class folks are set with an even greater burden.

Our economy is still suffering the effects of the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression.  Evidence is mounting that this was not simply a bursting of a bubble, but an orchestrated, planned destruction of wealth, in order that wealth could be consolidated by a select few.  Most people lost money in the Great Recession, but some people made money.  Lots of money.  The government was forced to take unprecedented actions to keep the entire economy of the world from collapsing.  The Republican administration under George Bush took those steps, reluctantly, yes, but with no alternative which would not lead to complete economic meltdown.

Now, those same Republicans are trying to blame the Obama administration for what their president did.  They cry “No more bailouts,” yet what do they offer as a means of preventing the same situation from happening again?  Obstructionism, denial, and misrepresentation.  It was the Republicans who took this nation to war, violating the most basic of all rules, that against attacking someone who has not attacked you.  The Republican party has allowed flagrant violations of safety laws in the coal mining industry, sought ways to evade the Clean Water Act, and saddled our efforts to explore the Solar System with an unworkable program.

What kind of person will deny any effort to accomplish something merely to make themselves look good?  A Republican will.  Republicans see no problems with the health care system in the United States, even though the costs of providing health care to state workers is bankrupting the states, and growing numbers of Americans have no access to health care beyond the local Emergency Room.

The Republicans want you to believe that they are protecting the core values of the United States.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What they seek is further license to steal, to degrade, and to swindle.  Democrats opposed Republican legislation because they disagreed with it.  Republicans oppose Democratic legislation because it is Democratic legislation, even if they agree with it.  They are willing to allow the financial sector to take another stab at destroying America, just so that the government that oversees that destruction will be Republican.

Robby, the robot miner.

2010/04/11

Things could have been different in West Virginia last week.  People did not have to die to keep the cheap power flowing to the insatiable American consumer.  Coal mining has always been a dangerous profession, and a life in the mines usually means suffering from Black Lung disease the last years of life.  If one does not die in an explosion, flood, cave-in, or fire.

The technology exists to allow the miners to work in relative safety, connected to robot miners via virtual reality goggles and gloves, with control consoles for moving the robots around, monitoring vital functions, and communication with other miners.  People would probably still have to go underground, so that the links to the robots would not be too long, but they would not have to be exposed to the coal dust, methane, and physical risks associated with working coal.

The robots would not look anything like a human being, probably being mounted on a tracked carriage, with an upper body that could rotate, lean, and handle heavy weights.  Cameras would be the eyes, microphones the ears, and a large, heavy arm with interchangeable ‘hands’,  which could telescope out away from the robot a short distance.

Power would be supplied by cables, with an emergency battery back up for evacuating an area after a power failure.  Hey, these things are going to be expensive, so you don’t want to leave them at risk, if at all possible.  In order to be able to work in an explosive atmosphere, the motors and moving parts would have to be sealed airtight, which is a good idea to allow surviving flooding as well.

Not every task could be completed by a robotic miner, so humans will still be needed to climb down into the bowels of the earth, but robots could easily replace 75 percent of the humans working a mine, without putting those workers out of a job.  Their job would just be different, controlling a machine deeper in the mine.

Once a design is adequately developed, mass production could begin, which would bring the cost of each robot down considerably.  The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been unable to insure that profits do not take priority over safety, so, instead of trying to change the companies that own and operate the mines, they should be given the tools needed to make safety less expensive.

Of course, if the companies owned the mining robots, they might be more willing to keep the mines safe, to protect their investment.

When did the bubble start? In the 1960’s?!

2010/04/07

There is a lot of loose talk going around right now about ‘bubbles’, the housing bubble, the bubble economy, the credit bubble, I almost feel like I am watching the Lawrence Welk show.  Contrary to popular belief, the economy was deeply into bubbles long before anyone had even coined the term.  It really started in the 1960’s, when consumer spending began to fall of, due to the fact that the consumers had spent all of their savings, and now were cutting back on purchasing stuff that they really didn’t need.

This was a crisis for the money barons of America, because they were dependent upon a certain level of consumption in order to go on accumulating wealth at the rate they believed was essential, as well as their right.  Instead of reshaping the economy to depend on production of advanced goods, or space exploration equipment, or high speed trains, the powers that be decided to maintain the economy in the form it was in, and encourage spending by making credit more easily available.

Through judicious advertising, the American people were gradually brainwashed from their old belief that credit was a tool of the devil into thinking of credit as wonderful thing, which they would have to pay for some day.  Credit cards appeared, only they were the mark of high society, because those folks couldn’t be bothered to carry cash, don’t you know.  Of course, everyone wanted one, and, within about 10 years, just about everyone had one.  Or two. Or three.

Consumer spending actually rose, as people were more than happy to spend what they had not yet earned on something which they almost certainly could live without.  Our lifestyles were profoundly influenced by television, which carefully showed us the kind of world that we thought we wanted to live in.  But what we were being taught was that we needed to consume in order for us to be valid persons.  Spending was our way of assuaging our anxiety over our popularity, which we just knew was based upon what kind of car we drove, where we lived, and our income.

A historic change in attitudes was orchestrated by the makers of water heaters, shampoo, and personal hygiene products to convince people that bathing every single day was not only normal, but essential.  The single greatest luxury in the world, bar none, which many, many people have never even experienced, much less enjoyed very often, and Americans zip right through one every morning.  If you don’t smell like something that comes out of a bottle, or some kind of soap, you are a heathen, a barbarian, an uncouth lout, who will never get laid, promoted, or married.

So what if we are forcing our bodies to manufacture immense quantities of oil, we are consuming!  So what if our truck only gets 12 miles to the gallon on the highway, we are consuming!  The solutions to many of our problems do not require whole new technologies, like wind, and solar.  They are desirable in and of themselves, but we could slash our consumption of energy by nearly half, if we were to change our lifestyles, suffer some minor costs to our business, and accept that it is not our god-given right to be able to go anywhere we choose at the drop of a hat.

But the ones in control of things want us to go on believing that deserve all of these luxuries, and that we can pay for them somehow.  Even as they watch the tidal wave of payments coming due beginning in 2012, they ignore any thought of changing the basic tenants of our economy, our financial system.  There is no ‘tomorrow’ in most people’s way of accounting, just today.  Other cultures may have 5 year plans, we have 5 minute plans, subject to change if some kind of profit is to be made.

Well, here is something that you can plan on;  economic upheaval, turmoil, rapid, uncontrolled change, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, and bankruptcy.  The bubble is just about to burst, the shell game is finally going to end, and America will crash, because we are so greedy we cannot cope with any change which threatens our way of life.  Instead of allowing some change, a gradual turning away from dependence on consumer spending towards some other engine for the economy, our leaders have dutifully avoided dealing with the fundamental rot in the financial system.  They even agreed to remove the very regulations which were written to prevent the kind of situation we are in.

But nature always seeks a balance, even in unnatural systems, such as our method of compensating people for their work.  The lopsided distribution of wealth is a result not of  value honestly created by hard work, but by the manipulation of numbers in machines.  The people who know how to create real value by working with their hands, applying their craft, will still be comfortable.  Those who know nothing except trading, wealth management, and investment banking will be panhandling, because the wealth will be gone.

We have managed to spend everything that we are going to make for the next several years, if we don’t lose our jobs, which means that we are not going to be able to spend money on things that we can live without, like transportation in our own car, new clothes, and food.  Backyard lawns are likely to be turned into gardens, and community plots may become common.  All bubbles burst, and this one is absolutely huge, because it was planned this way.  Kind of.  Almost.  Would you believe, ‘allowed  to happen with foreknowledge of the consequences’?  Some people have made an awful lot of money in the last 50 years.  But most of us have just been going further and further into the hole, digging merrily.

Don’t walk away, Barack

2010/04/04

President Obama continues to get up and go to work every day, which is really an accomplishment.  Most people in his position would have bailed out long ago, unwilling to be left holding the bag of dog crap that the Bush administration handed him.  Long before the election, it was obvious that whoever won would inherit one of the worst economic catastrophes since the Great Depression, at the very least.  Every potential option had enemies, and all of them seemed rabid.

Whether or not you disagree with the President’s decisions and values, ask yourself if you would like to have responsibility for finding a solution to the mess we are in resting on your shoulders?