Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Oil embargo on the horizon?

Could it be déjà vu all over again? It very well could. The big deal right now in the United Nations is the idea of recognizing Palestine as a new member of the UN. This is fast becoming a Big Deal, and it could become a big deal gone bad if the UN votes to admit them and the US vetoes that vote. (Somehow, the US apparently has that power.) The brown and squishy would hit the revolving blades right quick like after that. Be ready to duck.

One entirely possible scenario would be a repeat of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973/74. For those of you a bit foggy on your 70s history (and honestly, who isn’t?), Saudi Arabia, in the fall of 1973, took exception to the US and western Europe backing Israel and stopped shipping oil to one and all. That they withheld five percent of the world’s available oil resulted in a quadrupling of the price of oil. Geez-o-Pete, did we have fun.

If you read my short story, “60 Days Next Year”, posted on the New Colonist web site, much of what I put in that story actually happened all over the US in the winter of 1973/74 as we all scrambled to keep on keeping on. It got ugly blindingly fast. And it could again. All we have to do is be a booger when the time comes.

Twenty-eight years ago, America went to voluntary gas rationing. We used an even/odd system, based on your license plate’s last digit. If your plate ended in an even number, or A through M, you got to buy gas on an even numbered day. If your plate ended in an odd number or N through Z, you bought gas on an odd numbered day. It was a simple system, and it drove us nuts. Sure, you could buy gas every other day, but then again, you also couldn’t buy gas every other day. We went crazy.

People were stealing plates so they’d have one of each. Gas stations were limiting how much you could buy, and if you weren’t a regular customer, you couldn’t buy from them at all. Lines for gas stretched around the block. People followed the gas tanker trucks to see where they were going. It was loopy. And we could go right back to that if we press our luck here real soon.

I am not going to get into a political discussion here about whether or not I think the UN should admit Palestine. I’m pretty sure they’ve admitted worse. I am, and will freely admit to being, a big fan of Israel. Still, I think the US can both back Israel and allow Palestine to be a part of one of the most ineffective organizations on earth. Why not? What does misery love?

But do keep an eye on this one, as a veto by the US will most definitely kick US/Arab relations right in the ol’ camel saddle.

Keep your bike tires pumped.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's just a phase we're going through...

Saw an article in the newspaper the other day about how we are running out of helium. My sympathy to Simon, Theodore and Alvin. The funny thing was, as I read the surprisingly lengthy article, I could see where you could easily cross out “helium” and pencil in “oil” and the article would be just as valid. It’s always seemed odd to me that the fact that we are running out of oil has never really been big news. No idea why. You’d think it would. It should.

The thing is, what was being said about helium, and what could be said about oil, could also be said about every non-renewable natural resource on, or in, earth. With seven billion people milling around on the big blue marble, we are using up stuff like mad. So yeah, a lot of it is going to run out. Not just the oil and helium.

Richard Heinberg did his very best to warn us with his book, Peak Everything (New Society Publishers, 2010). Obviously, Mister Heinberg is not one to beat around the bush. Rather than try to list everything that we risk using up without replacement, it might be easier to list the stuff we won’t run out of. Let’s see… I’ve got that short list here somewhere… on a very small piece of paper. Ah, here we go:

Solar power, wind power, and, um, yeah, well, I told you it’s a short list. There are many things we do and use now that we will always be able to do to some degree, but maybe not to the huge degree we do now. Like travel. Like farming. Once we use up all of the natural non-renewable resources, human enterprise will sort of stumble into its next phase: The “re-use it or lose it” phase. We are currently wrapping up the “we got it all!” phase, having managed to drag ourselves out of the “hunter-gatherer” phase awhile back. Don’t worry, it’s just a phase we’re going through.

With few exceptions, earth’s natural resources are a sort of use-once proposition. Oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, helium, you name it, you use it- but only one time. After that, it’s gone forever. We do have some stuff we can reuse, like water. And we can plant more crops to grow more food, but with less help from oil, et cetera, we’ll get less food with every round. We are running headlong into an era of less, even as we demand more. It’s going to be an epic train wreck. Assuming we’ll still have fuel for the train. (Okay, so maybe it won’t be a train wreck. Maybe the train will simply roll to a silent halt.)

There’s really no way for you to truly prepare for this sort of thing. We will deplete our natural resources over the years, decades and centuries. But we already see it begin. We are about out of helium. The Chipmunks will finally reach puberty. Oil will get iffy and the ten thousand other things we extract from the earth will be a little less plentiful every year. Little by little, over time, we will be nibbled to death by ducks.

But hey, did we have some fun there for awhile or WHAT?!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kids today . . .

Kids today. Sheesh. There, I said it. I’m officially a geezer. Still: Kids today. Sheesh. So I’m out in the garage the other day, fussing with bicycles. That’s what I do. Everybody knows it. People bring their bikes by, and I try to fix them. Most times, I do. Hang on a minute, the phone’s ringing…

Ok, where was I? Oh, yeah: So the other day, this boy stops by. He’s fourteen, maybe fifteen. In high school. Six feet tall, and riding a bike built for someone shorter than me. Fine. What’s the problem? The seat’s loose. Excuse me? The seat is loose. Can you tighten it? Yeah, I can do that. I can do that blindfolded. Without looking, I reach into my wrench drawer and pull out the correct 14mm combination wrench. A couple of good tugs on the seat bolt and she’s snug. Done. That quick. The kid rides off happy and I stand there pondering the fate of kids today. Sheesh.

So yeah, I’ll admit that I can’t operate about 100% of the techno gizmos on the market today. I don’t even have a cell phone. The youth of today are ahead of me there, but: The kid couldn’t scrounge up a wrench to tighten his own seat?  What’s the world coming to? Are we evolving, if that’s the right word, into a people that can no longer do anything? Are all physical and mechanical skills slowly being phased out in place of phone apps? Are we going to end up as fat blobs staring at small screens? Oh, wait, we’re mostly already there. Never mind.

I ride my bicycle around town, and I see a lot, but let me tell you what I don’t see so much any more: Work benches and tools in garages. I’d say less than one garage in a hundred is set up for someone to actually do something in there. For the most part, garages in America today are simply cheap storage facilities. Some of them even have room for a car. My garage holds about 30 bikes and trikes, two motorcycles, two motor scooters, a pick up truck, and ten foot long workbench with a bench grinder on one end and a drill press on the other. And a ton of tools. Probably literally. My man cave rocks. 

I like working with my hands. I like to fuss with bikes and I like to build stuff. I like to make noise and make sawdust and at the end of the day, I like to have to really work at it to get my hands clean. That makes me feel like I did more than stare at a screen all day. (As I stare at my computer screen right here right now.) Do they even teach “Shop” in school any more? I took years of it, and I’m very glad I did.

My Dad was a carpenter before he joined the Army, and he always had a well equipped workshop no matter where he lived. I continue that tradition, and with many of his original tools. I know how to sharpen a drill bit. I know how to sharpen a saw. And I do. In this modern, disposable society we are fast loosing the craft workers and trade skills that we need to keep it all running. People don’t fix things any more. They simply buy new, then pay to have it installed. I can’t do as much as I used to, but I still do what I can.

But what of the kids I see? The ones that can’t tighten a bolt? Will the physical world mean that little in the coming years? I don’t think so. I think it will still be important, if not vital, for a person to be able to do real things with real tools themselves. And it looks as though no one is teaching that any more. Too bad. You can’t drive a nail with your cell phone, kid.

Oh, and that phone call earlier? Neighborhood kid. A different one this time. His handlebars were loose. Could I tighten them? Kids today. Sheesh.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Conservation: the next big thing!

From time to time, when people talk about the oil crisis we face, and the need for a viable alternative energy resource, the idea is put forth that all we have to do is go at it as we did putting a man on the moon. We did that in less than a decade, so why not this?

Here’s why not: There aren’t too many blank spots left on the periodic table of the elements. We’ve found all the obvious stuff here on earth, and these days, if some scientist does manage to find something new to add, it’s invariably something like “garbanzobeanium” and it’s really rare. There’s simply nothing left to discover around here that will do all for us that oil has done for us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all work together to solve the problem. There is a solution, you just won’t like it. Oh, and the US space program is pretty much wrapped up, too. Time to move on.

I must have been out the day “conservation” became a dirty word in America. It became un-American, and maybe just a little bit pink-o. Too bad, ‘cause that’s what’s gonna save us. The big “Moon Landing/Manhattan Project” response to the oil crisis is for us to go after conservation like there’s no tomorrow. Because if we don’t, there isn’t.

Since we do so very little conservation here in America right now, this is a wide open field of possibilities. We are such energy pigs. Where to begin? At home, we need to set goals for energy and resource consumption. What if we said everyone had to limit their home energy use to 5 kwh a day and 750 gallons of water a month, per person? First off, you’d have to figure out how much you are using now to see how little that is. But could you do it? Could you use that little? That ain’t much, but it’s also what the Lovely JoAnn and I use together in our house, so it can be done. I dare you to even take the time to figure out what you use at home, either per person or in total. You will be amazed.

We drive about 10,000 miles a year, and yes, we could reduce that, if and when we have to. We are not extravagant drivers, and again, that figure is for both of us together - about 5,000 miles per person per year. Put like that, it ain’t so bad. But what about you? There’s no doubt that the oil crisis will hit our driving habits hard - and first. How much could you conserve there? Time to start looking.

Of course, for any national conservation effort to work, the public has to be given a very good reason to make the sacrifice. It has to be a sort of Patriotic War Effort thing, and there are far too few people left around here who remember the last one. Still, we did it then, and we can do it again - if we are shown that we have to. I’ve always said that Americans are lousy about planning ahead, but great when it comes to responding to a crisis. And this will be all that.

So maybe now’s the time to buck the trend and look at your life in terms of future conservation potential. How much could you save, how much less would you need to use, if you absolutely had to? Eventually you will, National Conservation Effort or not. Conservation needs to be our next Big Thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pick a car . . . .

Alas, the Tesla Roadster is no more. Or rather, they’ll stop taking orders for them in a couple of months. And while this is touted as big news in the auto world, I’m not shedding a tear for the loss. Did the world really need a $109,000 electric car? Apparently only 1,650 people thought so. And I was not one of them.

The car was based on the Lotus Elise platform, meaning it looked like it was designed by a 14-year-old boy trying to impress his older friend who has a driver’s license. Sure, it went from zero to sixty in under four seconds and it would do 125 mph, but it could take up to 48 hours to be fully charged. Let’s see . . . charge for days, drive for hours. Nope, not for me. You?

So Tesla has decided to stop making an electric sports car and go for a sedan. Is that going to fare any better? The new machine is priced at $58,000, but the first ones will go for $80,000. (Huh?) If you have any stock in Tesla, you also have my sympathy. I’m not sure what the public is really looking for these days in personal transportation, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an eighty thousand dollar sedan with a limited range that takes forever to “fill up”.

What I’d like to see someone build (or import to the US) is a small car with a one-liter gasoline engine. Make it a 90-degree V4 with fuel injection and offer it with either a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Make it out of aluminum, so it’s both light and rust-free. Have it seat at least three people, or two plus groceries. And paint it bright colors. I hate grey cars. Oh, and could you maybe make it NOT BORING?

Small cars don’t have to be dull. They can be cool and fun and exciting. The new Fiat 500 looks like a party on four wheels. The Smart Car is still interesting. The Mini Cooper rocks. Me, I think the Toyota Yaris is a fun little egg. I’d drive that!

In the years ahead, we’re going to see all sorts of fun with the global oil supply, and I don’t doubt for a moment that the trend in personal transportation will be small, smaller and smallest, pretty much in that order. That doesn’t mean we have to settle for boring and dull cars. If we’re going to pay a fortune of gas, let’s get our money’s worth — let’s have some fun!

Ok, yes, for now I’m driving a big Chevy pickup truck, but hey — I’m looking. I want to know what’s out there and what my options are. Saw a pristine early 1980s Pontiac Fiero in the grocery store parking lot the other day. Remember those? This one looked as new. I wonder where it’s been hiding? And I wonder if we could get Chevrolet to bring back the Corvair, if for no other reason than to make Ralph Nader’s head explode.

It would be worth it for that alone.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remember "Fifty-Five Saves Lives"?

That three-syllable word, those three little syllables, are being whispered again in the hallways and conference rooms in Washington, D. C. They are being mentioned in hushed tones with a knowing nod, a wink and a finger aside the nose. They are thinking about it out loud, but you haven’t heard them say them yet. You will. Just three little syllables:


Do you remember? Are you old enough to recall? It was the 1970s, an era of disco, big hair and Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer what done good despite his brother Billy. To conserve energy, to conserve oil, the national speed limit was dropped to fifty-five. States that did not comply faced losing federal highways funds. So we all drove fifty-five. Or at least we pretended to when anyone was looking.

I remember driving the ninety miles or so out to Disney World under the new speed limit. Over sixty miles of the trip is done on I-4; a road where, no matter how fast you go, someone will pass you. Taken at fifty-five, the ride was leisurely and bucolic. Very relaxing. I have to say that even then, as young and wild and free as I was, I did enjoy the laid back pace of fifty-five. I was also driving a ’72 VW Bug, but it was capable of going faster. Ah, fifty-five. Homer Simpson said it best: “Sure, it will save some lives, but millions will be late.” My 1981 Yamaha SR500 motorcycle still sports the speedometer style of the era: “55” is highlighted in red, and the thing only reads to 85, despite the machine being capable of much more. That was the trend of the day.

Will we be returning to those lethargic drives of yesteryear? If we do, I hope we do it right this time. Sure, fifty-five saved fuel out on the open road, but we don’t drive on the open road all the time. What about the lesser roads? What about around town? If we do go back to a reduced speed limit (and I do believe we will eventually), I suggest we make a sweep of it; that is, yes, lower the national rural speed limit to fifty-five, but then get in there and finish the job: Lower every road’s speed limit by at least five miles an hour. If you’re going to save, by golly, then save.

It will be interesting to see if we do go back to the lowered speed limit. Right now, the political timing is off. That’s not something you do unless you absolutely have to — if you want to be re-elected. For the U.S. to drop its speed limits again, there will have to be a crisis worthy of the effort again. In the 70’s, it was the Arab Oil Embargo. And now? Will peak oil, or a sudden cutoff of our oil supplies for whatever the reason be enough to get us to slow down? I see no way that Americans would accept it simply because it made good sense. We have to have a pressing reason to make sense. Hopefully with the usual attached media circus.

Lake Avenue runs north-south along the west side of our house. It gets about 4,000 cars a day, and it seems like most of them are traveling well in excess of the road’s 30 mph speed limit. Mister President, if you read this, you can start right there with that lowered speed limit thing. Any time. Please.

I can drive fifty-five.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Peak Oil or Peak Oil Production?

M. King Hubbert had it easy. He was proven right in just 15 years. As a geologist for Shell Oil, Hubbert predicted in the mid-1950’s that US lower-48 oil production would peak right around 1970. And he was right. Maybe not overly popular, but right. Now here we all are, trying to figure out when global oil production will (or did) peak. It’s a much tougher job. Like I said, Hubbert had it easy.

I often equate peak oil, and the crash that is predicted to follow, as being rather like a glacier that is very slowly crawling toward a small Alpine village. The glacier is moving down the mountain one meter a year. The village isn’t moving at all. So it’ll get there, it’ll just take time. Be patient. The glacier is still moving.

When people first read about peak oil, they get all excited and panicky, and then they wonder why everyone else isn’t all excited and panicky. Yeah, well, it’s not like that glacier has picked up any speed. And it never helps when there’s been a long history of mis-predictions when it comes to peak oil. Unlike predicting the peak of US oil production, there are simply too many variables when it comes to predicting the peak of global oil. And too many lies.

It’s also too easy to look at the price of oil and see that as an indication of supply - and of the peak. If the price of oil drops, too many people see that as proof that peak oil is still far in our future. I see low oil prices as a factor that may hasten the peak as well as the fall predicted to follow that peak. But the price of oil is a lousy indicator of overall supply.

If the price of oil drops, oil products (like gasoline) get more affordable. People drive more, use more gasoline, and save less oil for later. As the price of oil drops, the incentive to search for more oil drops, as does the urgency to develop alternatives to that oil. It just ain’t worth it while oil is cheap, and it’s tough to do when it’s expensive.

In a perfect world, we would not be watching the price of oil at all, but we would have access to accurate global oil production data on a timely basis. In a perfect world, we would be able to monitor the world-wide flow of oil, to track the ebb and flow, and we would be able to see obvious trends in the supply of that oil all over the globe. In a perfect world, Snooki would not be a household name, entertainment sensation and media darling. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world.

And when the wind blows down off that mountain, the glacier chills the town. It’s that close.