USS Clueless - Energy dependence

Stardate 20020924.1634

(Captain's log): In response to my comments to the effect that reducing our use of oil would not reduce the danger to us, a reader writes:

First, as an engineer, you undoubtedly know that there is no shortage of credible technologies which could dramatically increase the energy independence of the U.S. The amount of government R&D or price support money spent in those areas is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of Gulf War I, let alone the probable costs of Gulf War II.

(The only significant Federal expense on power R&D on this scale is in fusion research -- which has been a colossal and predictable failure due to a single minded focused on the One Right Answer)

On the contrary, I know of only three technologies I consider credible which actually could generate energy at sufficiently high rates to offset our use of petroleum in a significant way. Two of them are hydro and fission. And the US has already fully developed its hydro, and fission as a power source is politically dead in the US, irrespective of its merits from an engineering standpoint.

The third is creation of synthetic petroleum from coal. That works, but it isn't cheap, and I can hear the anti-CO2 screams already, because it emits far more CO2 per unit effective energy than petroleum does. (You have to burn a lot of extra coal at the synthfuel plant to power the conversion.)

There are all sorts of blue-sky ideas for other ways of generating energy, but every one of them is deeply flawed in concept, in ways that research can't correct. I wrote about some of that here.

Every other source I've ever heard of either wouldn't generate power at the time and place we need it, or would actually cost more energy to deploy than it would yield for a long time (so that energy break-even would be in decades, not months), or couldn't be scaled up to the size required to make any significant difference, or would have negative environmental impact which would make what we're doing now look small by comparison, or would cost an impractical amount of money per megawatt, or would require a mammoth expense (and a long time) to replace a substantial part of our physical plant.

Second, I tend to agree that we would have adversaries in the region with or without oil money -- I agree at least in part with your analysis in that respect.

What you're missing is that without oil money WE WOULD NOT CARE WHAT THEY THINK. The dictatorships in the region are propped up by oil money pure and simple -- if they had the resources of, for example, Haiti, who would care?

The only reason we're fighting their dictators is because we're taking the war to them. Those who brought the war to us were fighting on the cheap. The total budget for the 9/11 attack probably was not in excess of a million dollars, and the attack was not launched by any dictator.

The whole point of terrorism is that it is cheap. It's the tactic of choice for very small groups with little in the way of resources, and even if we stop using oil and cause such prosperous economies as do exist in the middle east which are based on oil revenue to collapse, that won't make them stop hating us (for our success and their failure) nor will it stop them from attacking us, nor will it deprive them of the miniscule resources they'd require to do so in future.

A nuclear attack on us would necessarily require participation of a government and a massive amount of money. But there are a hell of a lot of lesser things that could be done to us which would cause us amazing amounts of grief which could be implemented very cheaply. I can think of a dozen extremely easy ways to thoroughly louse up America, and I have no intention of saying what any of them are. But none of them would require the resources of a government.

We already don't care what they think. But we care what they do, and they'd still be both motivated and capable of doing things we didn't like even if we stopped using their oil.

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Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004