Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Drill where? Drill how?

Every now and then someone comes up with what seems like a brilliant ad campaign or slogan but which ends up being very, very wrong.  The GOP's "drill baby drill" and "drill here, drill now" sound patently insane in light of the volcano of oil erupting into the Gulf of Mexico courtesy of BP, Halliburton, MMS and a host of others.  Yet there are those who insist that it's still the right strategy, never mind the unparalleled environmental damage we're only now beginning to see and the fact that it will take weeks to stop and decades to clean up.

I have to say I think the GOP was onto something, though as is typical they had it ass-backwards. It shouldn't be "drill here" it should be "drill there."  The US only has 2% of the world's oil reserves so even if we were to drill every known resource we wouldn't even make a dent in pump prices.  Experts estimate that if we were to go full-bore with domestic drilling we might reduce the cost of gasoline about $0.03/gallon by 2020.  At today's prices that's 1% and if you think prices won't go up between now and then I have a bridge with your name on it.

Additionally, as any econ101 student knows, crude oil is a fungible resource so, once it's refined, it makes no difference where it was drilled.  So why drill here?

Why not leave ours in the ground and use up what other countries have, all the while working on finding alternatives?  If oil is $75/barrel now it's a safe bet that it'll be double that in a few years, then double again not long after.  Who knows, maybe what amounts to 2% now will be 10% then giving us a lot more control and making sure we have oil when it's far more scarce and expensive than today.  The EPA recently published a study saying if the average car's mileage were to go up 10mpg, which is well within the reach of technology, that would be equivalent to a reduction of $1/gallon in 2020.  Which makes more sense: "drill, baby, drill" or "sip, baby, sip"?

And keep in mind that petroleum is used for a lot more than just automobile fuel: pharmaceuticals, lubricants, jet fuel, plastics, clothing, food, chemicals, etc and right now there is no cost-effective replacement for it in and of those applications. Would you burn something you knew was crucial to the manufacture of medicine if there was another viable option?

But more to the point, let the drilling and the accidents happen elsewhere.  Don't get me wrong: I don't wish these calamities on anyone and I'd love to see a world where there are no oil rig explosions or coal mine collapses at all, but at the moment that's nothing more than fantasy - accidents and human error happen with alarming ferocity.  Maybe in another decade or two we'll have more confidence that we can drill in miles of rock beneath a mile of water.  But that time isn't now. Who knows, by the time that technology does roll around we may be lucky enough to not need it at all.

But drilling near critical, fragile, irreplaceable environments like the Gulf coast, coral reefs (aka: fisheries) and ANWR?  Positively absurd.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

God? Complex. Part 1. (The Personal)

I'm not an avid believer in a hands-on, take-charge, active God.  I don't buy that there's an omniscient, omnipotent old man with a long, white beard who plays us like a game of meat chess.  But there are millions of Americans and billions of others who do.  They pray for big things like recovery from illness.  And they pray for small things like a good grade on a pop quiz or a better score for their sports team (because surely such a being would have nothing better to do).  If they don't believe that their God tweaks the world then their prayer is a silly waste of time so shouldn't they be doing something more fun like folding laundry or watching NASCAR instead?

People in that latter camp wait for signs that their prayers are being answered, or at least heard.  Some see signs in trivialities like a song played on the radio, an ad on a passing bus, or a leaf fallin at just the right moment.  Other signs are more obvious like large accidents or natural disasters (They're not called acts of God for no reason, right?)

Those looking for the larger signs have had quite a few lately.  Interestingly many could be tied quite closely to American politics.  (For the sake of this discussion, let's ignore the American egomania that implies.)

[Continued in Part 2: The Politics]

God? Complex. Part 2 (The Politics)

In January of 2009 Governor Bobby Jindahl of Louisiana mocked a federal proposal that would fund research on volcano monitoring.  Two months later the Mount Redoubt volcano in Alaska erupted, blowing an ash and steam plume 15,000 feet into the atmosphere but doing avoiding major damage because it's in a remote part of Alaska (and that's really saying something).  But then, just over a year later, volcano Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland erupted, causing the largest disruption to European air travel in history.  It slowed down after a week but now, two weeks later, it looks like it may be getting ready to go again. The cost to airlines ran into the billions of dollars and it wrought havoc on air travel for hundreds of thousands of people.

All through the 2008 Presidential campaign John McCain, Sarah Palin and the rest of the leaders of the GOP mindlessly chanted "Drill, Baby, Drill" at every opportunity. Less than 18 months later an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana collapsed, killing 11 workers and for the last two weeks has been dumping over 200,000 gallons of oil into the delicate Gulf waters every day, with the possibility of the flow increasing by a factor of 10 before it can be cut off at the source in 3-4 months.  A week later another Gulf of Mexico oil rig collapsed but, fortunately isn't spewing oil.  Yet.

That same campaign saw discussions of clean coal, a misnomer if there ever was one, and in April of 2010 the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia exploded, killing 29 workers in the worst mine disaster in three decades.

There have been other such disasters including mine collapses in China and the devastating earthquakes in Chile, Haiti and southeast Asia but those I've mentioned seem remarkably pointed at the USA and it's not like God would suspend his normal world-wide activities even while majoring in one country.

If you're looking for signs from God these couldn't be more obvious.  But I can hear the replies now: a year or two is a long time between events. Is it?  Isn't even a century as but a blink of God's all-seeing eye?  Why cause a disaster right away without the proper planning when you can wait an instant and get it just right?

Maybe God is trying to teach the Democrats a lesson, you say?  After all, President Obama is a Democrat. But He is going after distinctly Republican targets.  If he wanted to spank the Liberals wouldn't he be better off knocking over a couple of windmills instead of oil rigs?  Bankrupting Whole Foods rather than GM? Collapsing Ed Begley's ecohouse not a coal mine?  Allowing a terrorist to complete his goal rather than giving them all a chronic case of the incompetent stupids?  The list goes on.

Fortunately I don't believe in such things, but if you believe in a do-it-yourself, over-achiever God the signs are all around you and they're crystal clear.  Your God is telling you something.  And if you're still supporting the GOP you're not listening.  How do you think that makes Him feel?

Still looking forward to that afterlife?

That would be absurd.