Saturday, June 5, 2010

On the oil spill

Part of the purpose of this blog is of course to watch the environmental news and post links and comments for students, faculty, staff, alumni and external visitors. The other purpose is to create connections between these groups, particularly in relation to our education, research and service work in sustainability.

So far I've refrained from commenting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn't for the want of news and concern. Obviously the media abound with news, and also with concern about the situation, perhaps too much of both. Manufactured concern is part of the political process in this country and most other democracies these days, and the mainstream media tend to offer up a distorted mirror to the people, just in effect parroting various viewpoints and sound bites. And from this we're supposed to come up with enough information to participate, so enough information to vote, for instance. Obviously it rarely works well, and a lot of folks have ideas and opinions that are just plain unsound. Where's the real news in that?

I've been unwittingly complicit in some of this. Reporters call or email me from time to time to get information, and like most academics, I usually oblige. It's hard not to give out information when that's your job. But the results rarely feel like I've made a contribution to sound discourse.

Two recent examples stand out in terms of how little they helped with rational discourse: Before the spill occurred, a reporter from California spent nearly 40 minutes with me eliciting information about oil drilling potential on land in the lower 48. Like most workers who have any knowledge about the situation, I directed him to consider gas exploration, by far the greater part of terrestrial drilling in the lower 48, particularly coal bed methane, and also gave some technical details about directional drilling as it's used in methane extraction. Turns out that what he really wanted was a sound bite saying that the reason the earlier Obama drilling direction didn't include California's coast was purely political. It was and is, of course, but the guy clearly wanted that line and only that line and the minute he got someone with an energy-related PhD to say it on the record, all the other ideas, knowledge and considerations I gave him, which of course were considerable, fell by the wayside.

And a BBC reporter recently, based in India, spent another forty-fifty minutes on the telephone with me to write an article evaluation airborne wind turbines. Forty-fifty minutes included a lot of discussion about the inherent physical limitations of such ideas: Betz law and the Power Law, and so on. Airborne turbines are very unlikely to produce significant amounts of energy for these very basic technical reasons, and any reasoned person would wish to know that. Kinetic energy extraction is inherently based on moving large masses, and fixed-wing flight, powered or otherwise, depends on reducing the ratio of mass to airfoil surface. This is an inherent contradiction that would limit airborne turbine output. And I explained this, of course, at length. But part of the job of the press is to boost ideas on behalf of entrepreneurs, and in this case partisan Indian entrepreneurs, so what appeared in the piece was one quote on tether lines and safety. I expect some poor fool who doesn't know physics very well will invest, and Indians in general may feel for a moment like their country has more of a stake in "the new green economy," which I think might be a good thing for them and everyone else, but come on! We're not going to get there by ignoring the laws of physics.

I expect that every reporter in the country that is assigned to the Gulf is similarly looking for a unique angle and a line or two to do some political work on behalf of the reporter or the outlet's own biases, despite the scientific and technical facts.

I'm not really sure I want to contribute to that. And as an educator and an academic working in what has come to be known as sustainability, do I have anything useful to contribute?

In a word: perspective.

If we were being serious about things and really trying to solve the problem, we'd be terribly concerned about the oil spill, but we'd be much more concerned about how, as a society, we got to the point whereby we passively accept the obviously unsound economics of drilling in 5,000 foot deep water for a dirty nasty product that will definitely help us get around and heat homes and run factories, but that will also pollute our skies, add to political destabilization all around the planet, and that is contributing to climate change.

Clearly the costs outweigh the benefits. And that's the greater problem, from which we are distracted by all the media hype.

How can I say this and still consider myself an environmentalist? Shouldn't I be jumping on the bandwagon for all it's worth, like the leaders of the so called "Group of Ten." ? Well, I'm a scientist and policy analyst first and foremost, not an environmentalist. And I know something about the science and economics.

Knowledge is power. In this case the power to avoid despair.

First the ecology: The Gulf itself will get fairly dirty and polluted for a while, and some of that pollution may even spread out of the Gulf. It's unlikely, because of the way that ocean currents work, to make it to Maine, although some local Maine journalists looking for an angle have suggested that. And the situation in the Gulf itself will eventually recover, ecologically speaking. Particularly the deep water oil plumes. The chances for oil at that depth to break down rapidly are actually much greater than on the surface, just because of the kinds of critters that live in that environment that eat this kind of stuff. On the surface things will take a while, but time and tide, weather and shoveling, will take care of much of the pollution.

As to the capping of the well, it would be better to get it capped right away but if that is difficult or impossible, the flow of oil will eventually stop by itself or slow to a ecologically meaningless trickle. Even if BP doesn't succeed in capping the well or drilling the relief well. The current buzz in the media seems designed to promote despair, that this will never stop.

Does the press honestly believe that oil wellhead blow-outs, "gushers," run for ever?

If they did, we wouldn't be worried about oil depletion. (Although I'd be terrified for our climate.)

So, if dear reader, I can get you for a moment to assume that what needs to be done, and physically can be done, by the government or BP, is being done, might we consider things in greater perspective? I tend to expect that this is close to the truth anyway. And can we disregard for a minute the local and regional short term impacts, which I concede are awful for the locals?

What is the real long term national and international significance of the oil spill? What should we really learn from all this?

The first thing I would say, is we learn that ordinary people and the media lack knowledge about energy and this is hurting us very badly. We need to know much more, as a society, about what energy really is and where it comes from. So we can make some better decisions at local, regional, statewide and national levels.

If we did, we'd be able to notice, for instance, that we can save energy, even oil, quite easily with basic conservation measures such as weatherization, insulation or using programmable thermostats. Here in Maine, we might save up to 20% of the oil-fired heat load of thousands of our houses just by fitting $42 thermostats.

And there are dozens of examples of other energy savings.

The next thing we should know is that we're surrounded by useful, clean energy all the time, if we would only care to use it instead of oil and coal. Sunshine, wind, geothermal heat, even in Maine, in winter. Careful modern solar building design, careful deployment of distributed wind and solar power, use of ground source heat pumps, moderate use of biomass, and sensible financing of all of the above, can reduce our need for fossil energy by a massive percentage, and with the development of a reasoned base load technology such as thorium "trailer" reactors, as well as electrical and hybrid vehicle systems, we can be done with oil completely, should we wish.

Of course, we'll have to teach some science to some people who currently don't know very much science, ordinary people, politicians, and particularly some of these journalists, to succeed in this. And we'll have to make some strategic decisions about who gets to bear the impact on energy extraction. Will we for instance, have coal mines destroying mountaintops in West Virgina, or wind turbines on mountaintops in Maine?

This is asking a lot of reason and politcs, I know, but I think we are up to it. A good kick in the pants, as this oil spill undoubtedly is, will help. The bottom line, of course, is that as long as we are willing to pay $60,70,80 or more dollars a barrel for oil, our ignorance is expensive. And BP, like any business, will take risks to win those profits.

On the sidelines of all this reality in the "reality-based community," our media is becoming a huge hindrance to discerning reality.

I'm really, really, starting to detest the modern journalist.

The only thing about current journalism that gives me any hope for our ability to reason out energy problems is that the Internet now offers a way for folks with knowledge and ideas to bypass these so-called professional journalists. Such as this blog.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Thank you, Mick, for a long overdue dose of common sense, something sorely lacking, as you point out, in the media today. If we could harness even half the attention and energy focused on the oil spill today and point it at the underlying problem, we'd really be on to something.