Monday, December 29, 2008

Of a President, a Veep and “The King”

(Published January 30, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

The other day I had something of an epiphany. As I was watching the Disney Pixar film “Cars” for about the ninth time, and seeing North Carolina’s own Richard “The King” Petty, personified as the 1970 Pontiac Superbird, and the host of other cars including Dale Earnhardt Jr., drafting on a super speedway for the “Piston Cup” championship, it occurred to me that there might be something analogous between this energy saving technique and our present need to prepare for the looming energy crisis.

“Cars” is actually a phenomenal movie, and should be seen by any kids aged from two to one hundred and two. Featuring the voice talent of the likes of Mario Andretti, Paul Newman, Darrell Waltrip and Bob Costas to name a few, it contains all the drama, trauma and love interest of any world class classic.

Drafting, or slipstreaming, is best known perhaps in auto racing, but is employed in other sports such as cycling and speed skating as well. In the animal kingdom, geese and some other birds fly in a V formation, the wing tips of the leading bird providing upward vortices, and thus lift, for the tailing bird. No dummies of the deep, lobsters also use cooperative drafting, migrating in single file over hundreds of miles in a “lobster train.” Although they are not as fast as Mario’s Ferrari, they are red once they are cooked.

Back in ’01, Vice President Cheney made comments regarding US energy policy that drew much review. (Sorry, a little slow on the uptake.) Mr. Cheney commented that conservation may be a personal virtue, but not the basis for a sound energy policy.

Conservation has probably not been a virtue since the days of Thoreau and the 10 foot by 12 foot cabin in the woods at Walden Pond. Today, it is exactly the opposite. Only a lunatic would reside in such a domicile.

Conservation, however, is the most cost effective method to utilize and stretch resources. Even a 10 MPG AWD SUV can be driven on planned out errands, with ride sharing to double or quadruple people-mpg (the number of people times mpg). At some point in the future, in order to maintain some degree of equality and economic parity, scarcity will require that rationing distribute the dwindling resource, similar to the case of WWII. At that point, drafting behind tractor trailers will be de rigueur, though not in the fashion sense, but more in the protocol sense.

In the case of NASCAR, teams track their efficiency and a number of other parameters. They average around 5 mpg, about what a fully loaded tractor trailer gets on the Eisenhower Interstate. But they are moving around 180 – 200 mph. And they only have so much fuel capacity per regulations. So drafting provides the best fuel economy at a given speed.

This planet also only has so much fuel capacity. Oil reserves are now in depletion mode. Spurred on by high oil prices, more rigs are drilling around the world than anytime in the last 20 years, however production has remained flat since 2005. New fields, much heralded in the news media, are but a drop in the oil drum.

Back in our time machine again, in 1992, President George Bush Sr. stated that the American way of life was non negotiable at the Earth Summit. Our current President and VP have echoed the same statement.

We should probably respect our elders. Mr. Bush Sr. was absolutely positively right, in a way he probably did not imagine.

The first oil crisis, in 1973, and the second one, in 1979, emanated from political tensions and resulted in temporarily reduced world oil supply and increased oil prices.

It is possible to negotiate with OPEC, the cause of the first episode. The political slash economic organization, at least Saudi Arabia, is tight with recent and particularly current US administrations.

It may even be possible to negotiate with those that govern Iran, the cause of the second episode.

However, it is impossible to negotiate with geology. It does not concern itself with the triumphs and tribulations of the human condition.

We are discovering new fields, yes. From 2000 to 2006, about 20 Gb (Billion barrels) of recoverable reserves in giant fields (over 500 million barrels) were discovered. This amounts to about 8 months of world oil consumption at the current rate of about 30 Gb per year. From 1960 to 1969, the peak years of discovery, over 400 Gb of recoverable reserves were located. This difference should put things in perspective.

So a new field, if it is less than say 500 million barrels, is not news worthy. This would last less than a week at the current global burn rate of around 80 million barrels a day, and provide false hope and misinformation as to the current peccadillo the planet is in.

To use another example, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the subject of much controversy, contains at least 4.3 Gb, according to the US Geological Survey. If we ever do drill there, it will amount to only 6 months of US oil consumption at the current rate. We might want to leave some for future generations, if only to use as a raw material to make life critical products, such as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and plastics, to name a few.

All this stuff about Richard Petty and NASCAR and fuel has got me all revved up. I am feeling an irresistible compulsion to drive out and get some STP gas treatment. And I drive a diesel.

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