This winter we should not be surprised at being bitten by the energy crunch. Over the past four decades we have had ample warnings that, “sooner or later” this will become a problem. The symptoms have come and gone in the past, but this time they will remain and only get worse. In this issue I would like to look at some aspects, usually glossed over by the mainstream press and media.
When people in New England talk about energy, their implied focus is on transportation and heating. The problem, however, applies to every aspect of life here, throughout the country and throughout the world. Certainly, there are vast deposits of fossil fuels, being both exploited and yet to be discovered. The world population, however, is exploding in numbers and the resulting economic needs are rising exponentially. Hence, unless something is done to cut the consumption and make the process more efficient, we are going to run out of conventional sources quickly. As for new “alternate” sources, it will take decades to develop them and phase them in so as to effectively replace the traditional ones.
The availability of oil has been based on supply and demand. Politics have been a secondary problem until recently; the “Arab embargo” during the 1970s had been the only exception and an experiment of sorts. For a couple of centuries the United States was the world’s economic giant, because of our industry and agriculture. As a result, it has become ingrained in the American way of life that our needs are predominant internationally. Since World War II , however, the mindset of our government in Washington changed to military might, with the resulting dissipation of our economic strength. We have become a debtor nation, vulnerable to political manipulation from outside our borders.
Also gone are the days of abundant crude from traditional sources, such as Saudi Arabia. Using research by Matthew Simmons, an energy specialist as a basis, the well known author and journalist Peter Maass wrote “The Breaking Point” (New York Time Magazine, August 21, 2005). The case in point is the Saudi Ghavar oil field, claimed to be the largest in the world. It currently produces 5 million barrels a day, or about one half of total Saudi production. While the Saudis shroud the prospects in secrecy, Simmons suspects that the field is running low. According to the article, to keep the oil flowing more and more water must be pumped in. Should the point of diminishing returns be reached at Ghavar, a world-wide oil crisis might develop.
Our “democratization” efforts in the Middle East may lead to the collapse of the Saudi regime and a resulting takeover by Islamists, eager to harm the U.S. economy. The events in Iraq indicate that the anticipated oil flow from those fields may be indefinitely disrupted by the terrorists and eventual needs of the local economy. Iran cannot be counted on as a reliable source of crude for us, because of their hatred of Americans. Another traditional source, Venezuela, has also been increasingly anti-American. Other sources, like Canada and Mexico, may also be affected due to increasing competition from China, Japan and South Korea.; Russia remains an enigma.
The deterioration of our economic stature has also been affecting the value of U.S. Dollar in the international energy market. The traditional “Petrodollar” standard may collapse, resulting in skyrocketing price increases of gasoline and other petroleum products.
Thus, as opposed to the past, we are now facing a new set of circumstances that has become rock solid. Japan, our first manufacturing challenger, has always had to rely on foreign sources for their raw materials; they are now facing a potential workforce crisis. Same will eventually develop in South Korea. This will establish limits on their industrial growth. This will not, however, apply to China and India, making them our greatest competitors for energy sources. While China has been thwarted for the time being in her quest for access to oil in the U.S., they are making a rapid progress in Venezuela, Mexico, African countries and elsewhere.
Besides the collusion between our major oil companies, our government and select foreign oil magnates, we also face barriers in trade flexibility. Governments of countries like China or India can subsidize their exports, underbid the competition and offer barter deals, impossible for American counterparts. Those governments, unlike ours, set the economic development first and foremost.
While this is going on, our government in Washington is playing a game intended to pacify the American taxpayers and alleviate their fears, while their pockets are being cleaned out. One of the greatest scams, in my opinion, is the drilling for oil in Alaska’s ANWR (Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) region. I do not see anything wrong in a properly controlled oil exploration. The economics of such a venture, however, stink to high heaven of monumental pork. Even if vast reserves of oil are found, countless billions would have to be invested in making the products accessible to American consumers.
The development of the ANWR deposits would require new pipeline systems, shipping and refining facilities. Since our country lacks the funds for such a venture, the entire system would fall prey to foreign investors. Who would they be? The “Sheiks of Araby”, Chinese government and such, which makes one wonder what would be the benefit to Americans?
The media have been highlighting a switch to alternate fuels as a panacea to our energy problems. Certainly, internal combustion / electric cars, or so called “hybrids” are a viable interim solution. Natural gas is another fuel alternative requiring a minimal change to conventional engines; the problem is lack of refueling stations. As a result such vehicles have been limited to fleet use; figures quoted in an article in the Republican-American newspaper for 2004 indicate 130,000 natural gas vehicles vs. 230,000,000 gasoline types. A hydrogen powered prototype, costing $1,000,000 is currently being road tested in California – can anyone imagine how long it would take to develop a competitively priced production model and provide a refueling network? While better batteries are being developed, it may take decades before purely electric cars will become practical.
Thus, gasoline engine driven vehicles should remain our primary means of transportation for decades. What we must change, therefore, is fuel consumption. Logically, gas guzzling behemoths, producing 12 – 14 miles per gallon, cannot be justified by the needs of an average American family. Also, who needs 120 mile per hour capability, if the speed limit is only 65? Unfortunately, American auto makers have been slow in realizing this and the market will be open further to more foreign makes. Even China is already at our doors with two economy models.
Public transportation must not only be improved, but also aggressively promoted. In Waterbury we already have in process a review of bus lines, stops etc. For years we have been hearing of a new Transportation Center on Meadow Street. High time to do something about it. Both plans, however, have to be coordinated. All buses should be routed through the Green and the Transportation Center. Any prolonged stops should only be at the latter, while the Green would be used for quick passenger pickup only. This would alleviate current traffic congestion.
Buses should also be routed in such a way as to be within walking distance of major residential areas. There should be a frequent bus run connecting the Colonial Plaza, the future Transportation Center and the Brass Mill Center Mall. Also, future city buses should have ample free deck space where passengers could place shopping bags etc. This will make public transport attractive to city residents.
In states where home heating is a necessity, fuel economy should be enforced in house design. I have watched buildings being constructed by developers in the neighborhood and shuddered. The outer walls seem to be made of three quarter inch particle board, with plastic sheeting over that, all covered with vinyl siding. Not that older homes are much better in heating economy, but at least they lack the plastic wrap which only promotes radon and mold accumulation.
Insulating glazing features are being touted for replacement windows, which is ludicrous considering that house walls and ceilings lack heat retention. Entrance doors often have gaps at the bottom. Some enterprising soul should offer infra-red photography to home owners, to see for themselves how heat is being radiated out.
As a nation, we must discard the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) thinking. Natural gas prices are expected to rise 50% in New England, largely because of delivery access, while the political lobby is fighting the construction of an offshore terminal on Long Island Sound. To whose benefit is that? Public safety? How about the two nuclear plants we have here in Connecticut? Even the inactivated one is a potential source of danger. At the same time suppliers of electric power are allowed to gouge the consumers with a 22% cost increase, claiming high cost of power plant fuel.
Combustion and emission control technologies have advanced to the point where powdered coal can be used as a “clean” industrial fuel. Do we hear much about it? No, and I’m told that most coal mines and deposits are owned or controlled by oil companies. So, while this country has huge coal deposits, we are being manipulated to rely on imported oil and natural gas. Since much of the oil comes from the Middle East, we are also indirectly financing the terrorists and other enemies of United States. Isn’t it perverse?
The New England railroad network must be improved, if we are to ease the congestion on interstate highways. Around Waterbury, at the present rate, by the time the widening of I-84 will have been completed, the traffic load will have surpassed its safe capacity again..
Thus, if our nation is to meet the needs of future generations, improvements must be started on basic systems and equipment, rather than allowing ourselves to be sidetracked by technological and often imaginary wonders of the future. Let research and exploration continue, but let us improve the existing technology first.
As for the Transportation Center, let us not make it subject to the redevelopment of the entire Freight Street / Jackson Street without delay and the inevitable success of the Center will drive the rest.