Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jack Kelly Sunday (as stolen from 2PJ's)

This is the territory of the Two Political Junkies, but I wanted to comment on Jack Kelly’s column in today’s Sunday Post Gazette. Kelly expresses the opinion that energy independence is quote unquote a pipe dream, and while I think his motivation for saying it is to skewer liberals, I think this is an issue worth mulling over.

Kelly’s basic point, I think, although he does not explicitly use the word, is about scale. He talks about coal gasification, mass transit, plug in hybrids and the nuclear power plants he thinks we would need to power them, solar (although not wind), conservation (55mph)and also drilling off the coasts and in the ANWR. He says that environmentalists could/should be mollified by an offer of 2,000 acres of some new national park where people could actually visit (he seems to skip over the point of a refuge). And Kelly’s conclusion is that all of this would help us reduce our demand for foreign oil in five to ten years from 60 percent of our consumption down to 25 or 30 percent.

By the way, Kelly has a novel suggestion about where to locate nuclear power plants to avoid the NIMBY problem. He suggests military bases. I think the troops have suffered enough, but Kelly's idea is probably doable. You give up a lot of your rights when you put on the uniform.

He’s probably about right about how much we could reduce our oil use too, maybe. There’s reason to be pessimistic, though. Many thought gas prices would not come down in the late seventies and early eighties and that a period of austerity and deprivation was with us to stay. Then greedy OPEC, getting rich as a collective, fell apart due to that greed, and gas prices plummeted. If demand in the US and the rest of the world falls, and if speculation really is fueling (so to speak) part of current oil prices, prices may fall again. Then the SUV’s will start selling again, and we will start the cycle of consumption again. Eventually we will reach a point where oil will start to run out, and we may have a global depression, complete with mass famine, plague, political upheaval and global war.

But stepping back to Mr. Kelly’s assessment, he glosses over the liberal accusation that new drilling (whether in banned areas or in areas where oil companies apparently hadn’t exercised options they already have) won’t start producing results for five to ten years anyway. I will say, picking up on the speculation theme I mentioned above, since oil is priced on a futures market, permission to drill in the ANWR and off the coasts might have an immediate effect on the price of oil, since traders/speculators would see the increased supply coming.

There is one thing to say about Mr. Kelly’s estimate. I do think it is accurate, what he estimates in a five to ten year period. I think that he should be wrong about eventual energy independence, though. If we started working today on all the things he said, new drilling and new nuclear power plants (which probably also take five to ten years) and also increased use of mass transit, conservation, plug in hybrids, solar yada yada, we would probably reach that 25 percent foreign oil figure in the five to ten he says we would. But there’s no reason we couldn’t go further, and reach a zero foreign oil percent figure ten years after that, if we continued on that pace.

No reason except that we won’t. By then there will be a new President, and even if it is a Democrat, (s)he will have run on a popular “Let’s make America fun again” ticket (or some variation). And that’s assuming we even get that far. Mr. Kelly doesn’t even catch some of the problems facing our national lack of will. Mass transit use is up, but the increased costs to mass transit due to fuel are rising even faster. Of course in Pittsburgh we have a separate problem (driver’s union) and Dan Onorato is no Reagan. The paradox of mass transit is that it gets more riders when gas (diesel) gets more expensive, but that’s when it needs to cut routes because off increased costs. Unless we adopt European style taxes to help fund mass transit (for those who can’t afford a car), we will not make it cheap enough and also it will not be solvent enough to really help us out. Public transportation in the US is hardly private, but it is still not public enough (ie European level of funding).

There is also the effect fuel costs have on everything else that I haven’t mentioned. The majority of our food and basically all of everything else is transported by truck, ship and train (even some by airplane), and so the price of everything is going to increase. We may finally get those raises we never got during the Bush Presidency, when there was massive increases in productivity. Or not, corporations may not want to deprive stockholders of any more than they have to. But look for people to start talking about Victory Gardens again.

If gas prices do not fall, if they in fact continue an upward trend, I think Mr. Kelly’s projections might be accurate. Especially if gas prices continue their previous dramatic ascent (I think they may have plateau’d in the last week or two, though). If gas prices fall, as they did in the mid eighties , we are probably sunk, due to repeat the cycle. The only good news being the “spinner” hub market would not suffer. Though they are probably made in China.

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