From somewhere–inside the White House or the Department of Energy–President Obama is getting some pretty awful advice. It’s bad enough that he’s been persuaded that there’s a Nirvana Land of windmills and sunbeams in the future of electricity. But much more gravely in halting drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, he’s committing a fearsome folly.
If exploration and drilling in the Gulf doesn’t resume and gets caught up in punitive new rules, Obama, or his successor, will find the price of gasoline high (probably more than $5 a gallon) and military action against Iran will be proscribed.
It goes like this: After 18 months the supply of replacement oil from the Gulf dries up, due to the normal decline in production from old wells. Very soon, this loss exceeds 1 million barrels a day and begins to increase the world oil price,
World oil production today is 86.5 million barrels per day; of this, the United States gulps down an amazing 20 million barrels per day. This delicate balance, helped by the global recession, keeps the price bouncing between $70 and $80 per barrel.
Worst case is not only do we lose production in the Gulf, but any global upset–such as military action in Iran–will stress this oil production-demand balance further. Result: price rises. Political solution: none.
The folly of the Obama action is that every new hole drilled in deep water is going to be safer-than-safe.
There’s a well-known pattern: Disasters produce an aftermath of safety. The nuclear industry thought it was safe before the Three Mile Island meltdown, but it went back to the drawing board and produced new institutions for safety monitoring and study, as well as revised the very idea of defense in-depth.
The Obama caution is the danger, not the possibility of another spill.
The second energy disaster in the making is with electricity. The Obama administration has signed on to a vague idea, pushed by environmentalists and post-industrial schemers: It goes by the appropriately loose title of “alternative energy.”
In real-world terms, alternative energy can be narrowed to some solar
and wind. In fact, the only mature technology is wind. It works fine when the wind is blowing. The heat wave in the Eastern states in the past week makes the point: The wind doesn’t blow when it’s most needed.
There’s nothing wrong with wind, except that its most passionate advocates often favor it not for its own sake but for what it is not: nuclear power. Paranoia over nuclear power–always the first choice of the world’s utilities, if all things are equal–is a part of the cultural-political landscape in America.
Faced with this, the Obama administration has saddled up two horses and invited the nuclear industry to ride both as they diverge. It has thrown away the $11 billion spent on the first national nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, even as it has offered loan guarantees for new reactors.
Coming down the pike is a surge, a really huge surge, in electricity demand as plug-in hybrid cars and pure electric cars are deployed.
The plan–if you can call it that–is that the load of new uses will be spread by “smart meters” on the “smart grid,” and this will direct or coerce consumers to charge their cars in the middle of the night.
Fat chance. If consumers were that financially or morally conscious, they’d long since have cut their electric loads and driven smaller cars.
Want to be politically unpopular? Start telling people when they can refuel their cars. That’s known around the Tea Party circuit and elsewhere as government intervention.
Do you take yours with sugar? –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
There is a back story to the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the revelation of the extraordinary failure and triumph of engineering. In a world of computers, materials sciences and nanotechnology, big engineering remains awesome but often overlooked.
Everything to do with the Gulf disaster is part of the big engineering story. Hugely sophisticated drilling platforms, drills and drill bits make it possible to drill at a mile under the sea, and to go on another 3 miles into the earth beneath the ocean floor. That is awesome. The fact that at depth these drills can then drive horizontal is awesome-plus.
The blowout preventer–the fail-safe device–is amazing. It stands five stories high and is as sophisticated as a space rocket. It is a stunning piece of engineering design, which the world only knows about because it failed to operate on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded.
No one knows for sure why the blowout preventer failed. Feeble human hands may have been a factor; the best engineering is no better than its operators.
When it came to the Deepwater Horizon, the makings of failure were in place; not on the sea bed, but on the deck of the drilling rig. Fatigue, greed, hubris and divided responsibility all drove toward disaster. As in aviation, great industrial disasters are usually not isolated phenomena but the result of a sequence of failures and misjudgments.
The Gulf tragedy will be compounded if we turn away from big projects and big engineering because we fear failure.
In the 19th century, big engineering thrived. The British built the Indian railways. Cecil John Rhodes dreamed of building a railway from Cape Town to Cairo. The idea of a tunnel under the English Channel was considered (an abortive start was made in 1911), while the Suez and Panama canals were being dug.
Like the Romans in their day, the British were committed to big engineering in their colonies and possessions. Big engineering carried the enterprise forward, opened markets and, in the case of canals and railroads, carried troops to the battle.
The American railroads united the country and laid the groundwork for the greatest commercial expansion the world had yet seen.
Electricity brought forth more engineering creativity with power plants, dams, transmission lines, and finally nuclear power plants.
But big engineering took a drubbing in the 1960s: It was suddenly the problem, not the solution. We continued to fly in Boeing 747s, but we did not celebrate their engineering. We used more electricity and held our noses as we did so.
The miracles of engineering-based comfort and prosperity were to be eschewed. We indulged but fretted, like a smoker who knows he should not do it.
No longer did politicians urge the young into the exciting world of big engineering, whether it was civil, electrical or mechanical. Instead, they talked blandly about “math” and “science,” as though these were disciplines that could operate without engineering support.
“Technology” was in and engineering–big engineering, which built big things like dams, nuclear power plants, oil refineries and ships–was out, relegated to the category of “last resort.”
Incredibly, the tunnel between England and France was opened and the French pioneered high-speed trains. But America’s engineering schools played with their curricula, adding socially relevant courses and hybrids that include, and sometimes emphasize, ideas that are far from the world of leverage, logarithm and tensile strength. Engineering management and social impacts of engineering are among the new courses that have tainted the brawny world of big engineering.
Political correctness met engineering, and it has not been a happy marriage.
One would hope that the events in the Gulf would excite a new generation of engineering students to the romance of engineering, the thrill of creation and the duty of problem-solving. For engineering romantics like myself, a giant crane is nearly as wondrous as a cathedral.
There is unbelievable horror in what we have wrought in the Gulf. But also is wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld.
The decade of the 1960s stood orthodoxy on its head. It was a time when alternative everything got a hearing. Expertise came into doubt; the phrase “some decisions are too important to be left to the experts” was heard everywhere.
The seer of the day was Ralph Nader. Government was only trusted as a regulator. So it regulated: the environment, the schools, the workplace, the airline industry, the communications industry, and new industries like nuclear power. Anything that had escaped regulation in the 1930s got swept up in new regulations. And those 1930s regulations for banks and utilities were applauded.
Well, this decade is beginning to emulate the anti-establishment passion of 50 years ago. In particular, a despised government is being asked to regulate.
Make no mistake, regulation is in the air. Even Republican free-marketeers are blaming a lack of regulatory oversight for the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the collapse of mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
We are headed back to the future because some, though not all, of the underlying drivers of the 1960s are in place today,
The core of our crises today is as it was then: a sense of betrayal by our institutions. In banking, the environment and foreign policy, the left and the right feel they have been let down. They may be deeply divided on the degree of regulation that is needed, but the sense that key areas of our national life are broken is pervasive.
Besides the lost jobs, diminished 401(k) savings, recriminations over troop levels and tactics in two wars, and mounting national debt, there is now the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf — a crowning failure, if you will. Taken together they wipe out confidence and bring opprobrium on big institutions.
Big is bad. Big is out. Big cannot be trusted. Big has no civic conscience, whether it is banks paying themselves too well in a time of shortage or oil companies failing to take care when punching holes in the ocean floor. Big screws up big time.
The collateral damage is that, like the 1960s, no one is going to believe the experts on almost anything. People are not going to believe that giant airliners are needed, nor that biotechnology is good for the food chain.
The 1960s brought on an age of studies which, like polling, have become a news staple. These studies pour out of universities, think tanks, government departments and consultancies. Mostly they serve the people who fund them, so they get a brief life in the 24-hour news cycle and then leave us confused.
Are mammograms good or bad? Is there too much heart surgery? Does television affect deductive reasoning? Is weight training better than aerobic exercise? Will red wine and oatmeal cookies keep you going for 100 years?
Despite the contradictions implicit in expertise, we were just getting used to taking experts seriously again. We believed that bankers were oh-so-clever that they deserved oh-so-much money for what they did. Now we know they were just oh-so-greedy.
We believed that Toyota made the best and safest range of cars in the world, and that those Japanese quality-assurance types had it all over everyone else. Ooops! Got that one wrong.
And we believed that the clever people in the government knew how to conquer Iraq and turn it into the democratic beacon for the region. Not quite.
The problem with this institutional failure is the damage it will do in the future. Who is going to believe that the next drug or vaccine is safe? We won’t believe the experts and their studies. Ditto new nuclear power plants (which I favor), bridges, roads, high-speed trains and innovative skyscrapers.
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., lamented the decision-making freeze that prevented the creation of Westway, an elaborate and revolutionary highway and development project along Manhattan’s derelict Far West Side. In losing our faith in expertise, as we did in the 1960s, we lost our ability to take decisions.
Now it’s happening again. Thank you BP, AIG and Citibank. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate