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America is a great country. What made it great? Some of my ancestors (two brothers) came to this country in 1630. They landed in New England. They were fruitful and multiplied. But it was a tough life. The new land had an abundance of natural resources, coal, timber, and later oil and natural gas. The industrious immigrants made use of these natural resources and soon the new world was a thriving place and a great nation was the result.
Because it was difficult and expensive to bring materials to the new world, the colonists had to develop and invent their own tools and equipment. They became good at it. A wide variety of new machinery and ideas were developed in America. This is still true today. America leads the world in technology. The USSR could not make an atomic bomb until its spies stole it from the US. As late as the 1990's, China could not launch a missile and ensure its accuracy until the guidance technology was stolen from the US. Machine tools and other complex machinery, even though they are being made in other countries, use technology developed here. America helps to feed the world. US farmers exported a record $61.5 billion worth of agricultural products in fiscal 2004 (year ending September 30, 2004), despite a sharp drop in beef exports because of the discovery of a case of Mad Cow Disease. Except for the years of the Clinton presidency, America has been responsible for more than 50% (sometimes more than 60%) of the worldwide Food-Aid program. Food from America feeds people in China, North Korea, and Cuba.
What does this have to do with energy? An abundant supply of energy is what has allowed all of the above to take place. Oil was first discovered in North America in a location that is about 15 miles from where I live. The spring is located near the spillway end of Cuba Lake on the Oil Spring Indian Reservation. This site was described by the Franciscan Missionary Joseph De La Roche D'Allion in 1627.
The first oil well to be drilled in American was drilled was in the middle of quiet farm country in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859 by "Colonel" Edwin Drake.
Why did Drake choose this spot to drill for oil? Well, the number one beacon was the many active oil seeps in the region. As it turns out, there had already been wells drilled that had struck oil in the region. The only problem was, they weren't drilling for oil. Instead, they were looking for salt water or just plain drinking water. When they struck oil, they considered it a nuisance and abandoned the well. At the time, no one really knew what to do with the stuff once it was found.
For hundreds of years, people had known about these seeps in western Pennsylvania. In fact, there is strong evidence that Native Americans, at least as far back as 1410 AD, had been harvesting the oil for medicinal purposes by digging small pits around active seeps and lining them with wood. European settlers had for years been skimming the oil from the seeps and using the petroleum as a source of lamp fuel and machinery lubrication.
In the early 1850's, George Bissell, a New York lawyer, conceived a plan to try and produce this oil commercially. Benjamin Silliman Jr, a chemist at Yale University, and one of America's leading chemists, was hired to analyze the properties of the "Seneca Oil" as an illuminant. He determined that the oil could be distilled into several fractions, one of which was a very high quality illuminate (kerosene). With this positive information, Bissell was able to get together some financial backers, including James Townsend, president of a bank in New Haven, Connecticut, and formed the "Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company.”
Oil is the primary energy source that has fueled America’s path to greatness. Oil is not only used for fuel but as the building block for many of the items we use every day. This list includes plastics, pharmaceuticals, and even cosmetics. But why is the price so high and how long is the supply of oil going to last?
As I am writing this, the cost per gallon of gasoline in the Western Southern Tier of New York State is about $3.08. We have all heard of the record breaking crude oil prices of $75.00 per barrel (at 42 gallons per barrel of oil that amounts to $1.78 per gallon). Why is the price high? Is it huge profits by the oil companies? Even after the oil companies recently announced that they have made very large amounts of money, people forget that the oil companies have a very large investment. They also have a large number of shareholders. After the large profits received recently by the oil companies, the average percentage of profit was about 7%. That is very close to the national average for corporations. Coca Cola’s profit during the same period of time was 21% . . . Is congress going to investigate Coke?
Supply and demand plays the biggest big part in oil prices. America uses a lot of energy. Some people are critical of the energy that we use. They point out that the US has only 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 25% of the world’s oil supply. While this is true, remember, we feed , cloth, and provide technology to much of the world. One in three acres of U.S. agricultural land is planted for export. Agriculture exports generate nearly 25% of gross cash farm receipts and support 750,000 American jobs. America's farmers are the most efficient in the world
Clean air standards are another reason for a higher gasoline cost. While we definitely need to protect our environment, clean-air standards vary from state to state, requiring refiners to produce up to 250 different formulations of gasoline and diesel fuels to meet the varying requirements. These means that many refineries have to make one type of gasoline and then shutdown or re-blend to make another type. This makes for a lot of piping and storage requirements. If a refiner under estimates how much gasoline of a particular blend will be needed before the start of the next production cycle, there is a shortage and the price goes up. Also, we have not built a new refinery in almost thirty years. That fact alone has led to refineries being run at 100% capacity in order to meet the demand for fuel. All refineries need to be shut down for regular maintenance. Like any other piece of machinery, the harder they run, the more maintenance is required.
Congressional action to reduce the number of gasoline formulas across the country and reducing our demand for oil by conservation will help, but it is not the cure.
Even if America’s demand for oil goes down, it is going up for the rest of the world. China is now a major player in the world economy. While pre-1978 China had seen annual growth of 6 percent a year (with some painful ups and downs along the way), post-1978 China saw average real growth of more than 9 percent a year with fewer and less painful ups and downs. In several peak years, the economy grew more than 13 percent. Per capita income has nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years, and a few analysts are even predicting that the Chinese economy will be larger than that of the United States in about 20 years.
As with the US economy, the Chinese economy demands energy for its growth. The same is true for India and other developing nations. The leads to one undeniable truth. Soon, if it has not already happened, the world will not be able to pump out of the ground all of the oil it needs to keep the economy going.
This link contains an article about whether or not we have reached our peak.
So, what can be done about our energy needs? Coal can provide an around-the-clock power stream. But the 1,300 coal-fired plants in the US already produce 10 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Not a good situation. Coal also contains trace amounts of radioactive materials that are found naturally in the earth. The concentration of coal by burning large quantities in a coal fired power plant means, under normal operating conditions, a person receives more radioactive exposure by living down wind of a coal fired plant than a nuclear plant.
Windmills can provide a clean source of energy but they too have their detractors. Some people don’t like how they look. Others don’t like the noise. (I personally like the large windmills. Their noise level is like being at the beach with the sound of the waves.) Others claim the windmills kill birds. (Again, at my favorite windmill site, I have never seen a dead bird. I wonder who gets up early in the morning to dispose of all of the dead bird bodies. ) Solar is good, but expensive.
What has to happen? America needs a comprehensive energy policy. For the short term, we need to drill for oil. ANWAR (Alaskan wild life refuge) is a desolate place. Not many animals even live there. Using a small portion of ANWAR could help supply a major portion our energy needs for many years. We also need to drill off our coasts. Some of the Representatives and Senators from California say that they don’t lime the looks of the oil platforms. Much of the drilling takes place dozens of miles out from the coast. I doubt they can see that far over the horizon. Mexico has discovered another oil field offshore not far from the US coast line. They are going to drill. Castro has announced that he is going to drill for oil as close as 75 miles from the US coast. Cuba and Mexico will get the oil. We won’t. We need to drill in these areas. Yes, there is always the danger of spills. But past spills and the lessons we have learned have helped us to reduce the number of spills. Oil spills account for only about five percent of the oil entering the oceans. The Coast Guard estimates, that for United States waters, sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil each year as tanker spills. The Exxon Valdez spill taught us that oil tankers must have double hulls to protect against spills.We need to build more refineries to refine the oil that we produce or import. If there were to be a major outage at an existing refinery, the demand for oil products would far exceed the supply and thus the prices would skyrocket.
Those of you who know me, know that I am a conservative Republican. I like George Bush. I have even had the opportunity to shake his hand. But he is wrong for pushing hydrogen without pushing the means to produce it.
The element hydrogen is very plentiful in nature. But, in every case it is combined with something else such as oxygen, which makes water. Hydrogen is currently made in two ways. One way, is to strip hydrogen atoms from natural gas and crude oil. But remember, we are running out of oil. Natural gas is not that far behind. The second way to get hydrogen is the electrolysis of water. But this takes a lot of electricity. We now experience brownouts during the summers in various parts of the country due to a shortage of electricity.
The only practical way to utilize hydrogen as a mobile fuel source is to generate more electricity. While the use of solar, wind power, and geothermal energy can help, we need a big increase in energy. I believe that the best source for an increased energy supply is the use of nuclear power. I know, that when the words “nuclear power” are used, people think of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The Three Mile Island incident happened in March of 1979. Maybe one of my future commentaries will address what happened. It would take too long to go through that here. It was a problem with instrumentation and operator error. There was, in fact, no releases of radioactivity that constituted a danger to public health. Alarm about reported releases of radioactive gases soon after the accident arose from misunderstandings. And later concern about the possibility of dangerous releases arose from a mistaken conclusion that hydrogen gas accumulated in the reactor vessel could explode. A judge in major lawsuit dismissed the case where plaintiffs claimed to suffer health effects due to Three Mile Island.
The Chernobyl reactor is a different type that those used in the US. It uses a graphite core that can catch fire. Reactors in this country have been retrofitted with computerized controls. The computers will shut the reactor down automatically if things get out of hand (unless engineers intervene within a set time). At Chernobyl, they did not have such a sophisticated system, indeed they overrode the automatic systems they did have. When they got it wrong, the reactor overheated, melted and the excessive pressure blew out the containment system before they could stop it. Then, with the coolant gone, there was a serious fire.
One of the problems with building almost anything large in this country is the NIMBY principal (Not In My Back Yard). Everybody generates solid waste but nobody wants a land fill. Everybody wants to be able to drive a car but nobody wants a refinery, oil well, pipeline, or storage facility. Many people are clamoring for “green” power, but when it comes to placing a windmill in their community, they are against it.
The last nuclear power plant was ordered in the late 1970's. It was completed in 1996. One of the problems with nuclear plants is that everyone is designed from scratch. Each one has to be reviewed for safety and environmental concerns. I would propose that a standard design be evaluated and then “cookie cutter” designs be proposed in the US. That is the approach taken by France. Right now, approximately 20% of our power comes from nuclear plants. In France about 78% of their power is from nuclear. Russia has just announced that they will double the nuclear generating capacity in the next 10 years. China is proposing, because they understand that oil is not going to be available forever, a substantial nuclear power program. The nuclear reactors that China is considering building are designed in America, by an American company, with American Engineers.
The rest of the world uses our technology. We have fallen into such a bureaucratic black hole that we can’t get anything accomplished. Our nonexistent energy policy, if not changed soon, will lead to an energy shortage and America will not have the technological and economic advantage that it has now. Our high standard of living will be a past memory.
Last modified: 04/16/08