Friday, October 31, 2008

Energy We Can Live With

Presentation at Dutchess County Community College
October 30, 2008

When I originally made plans for this presentation, the title was to be: "The Next Time You Visit The Pump, Are You Ready to Pay Over $5.00 A Gallon For Gas? Energy We Can Live With." It was the summer and the price of gasoline was skyrocketing: to $4 and, indeed, $4.25 and $4.50 and higher a gallon.

That was a few months ago. The oil companies were claiming the fault was China and India going car-crazy and guzzling up gas, problems in the Middle East, then it was refinery capacity, and all along -- if the ban on drilling in areas on the continental shelf offshore was only lifted, everything would be different.

Meanwhile, filling up a car, at 40 or 50 bucks a shot, was hurting people badly. And impacting on the economy.

And, the oil companies were raking in record, indeed obscene profits -- billions upon billions of dollars. People were getting angrier and angrier thinking that some kind of price-rigging was going on.

Then, suddenly, just in recent weeks, the price of gas went down and down. Now it's back to under $3 a gallon. Would you believe? The price of a barrel of crude has dived -- from a high of $145 a barrel in July to as of this week less than $65 a barrel.

And people are still car-crazy in China and India, problems continue in the Middle East, no new refineries have been built in the last several weeks, and as to that ban on drilling on the continental shelf offshore, it was just lifted by Congress -- but, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, if drilling starts ASAP, it wouldn't "have a significant impact on domestic prices...before 2030."

Do you think the oil industry is manipulating the market, grabbing our money to make windfall profits and is deep in deception?

I've thought so for years. Let me tell you a story -- how decades ago I broke the story of the oil industry exploring in the Atlantic -- and received my first lesson in oil industry honesty.

I was a reporter for a daily newspaper on Long Island, the Long Island Press, and I got a tip from a fisherman out of Montauk who said he had seen the same sort of vessel as the boats he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the 1940s in the Gulf of Mexico. I spent the day telephoning oil companies. Public relations people for each said, no, we�re not involved in looking for oil in the Atlantic.

I was leaving the office when there was the yell that a public relations man from Gulf was on the phone. The PR man at Gulf's headquarters in Pittsburgh said he checked and, yes, Gulf was involved in searching oil in the Atlantic -- in a "consortium" of 32 oil companies. These included the companies that all day issued flat denials.

Later on, I looked into whether offshore drilling was really as safe as the oil industry claimed. I visited the first rig set up in the Atlantic -- off Nova Scotia.

Some safe. My article began: "The rescue boat goes round and the man from Shell concedes, 'We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster.'"

On the rig were capsules to eject crew members in an accident. I wrote, "Workers may all be kept in one piece, but erupting oil won't, the man from Shell admits." The Shell executive acknowledged that "curtains, booms and other devices the oil industry flashes in its advertising 'just don't work in over five-foot seas.'" So, he said, there are "stockpiles of clean-up material on shore. Not straw as in the States. Here we have peat moss."

As the President's Council on Environmental Quality in a report on offshore Atlantic drilling stated: "A major spill along the beaches of Cape Cod, Long Island or the Middle or South Atlantic states could devastate the areas affected�the Atlantic [is a] hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico."

That's why there was that prohibition on drilling on the continental shelf for 26 years -- and, as of last month, in the midst of our most recent oil crisis, gone. Meanwhile, the price of gas has come down�with about as much logic and sense as it went up.

There's a terrific new book just out: The Tyranny of Oil: The World's Most Powerful Industry
-- and What We Must To Do Stop It. The author, Antonia Juhasz, writes: "The masters of the oil industry, the companies known as "Big Oil," exercise their influence "through rapidly and ever-increasing oil and gasoline prices, a lack of viable alternatives, the erosion of democracy, environmental destruction, global warming, violence, and war."

She cites a Gallup poll on �public perceptions of U.S. industry -- and reports that the oil industry "earned the lowest rating of any industry."

Americans are on to the oil industry -- and they need to do a lot about it!

And it's not just Big Oil. When it comes to energy, it's Big Oil and Big Coal and Big Nuclear -- vested energy interests -- which manipulate U.S. policy.

S. David Freeman who helped form the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and headed the Tennessee Valley Authority, and also the New York Power Authority here, and is the author of another fine book, Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How, calls oil, coal and nuclear, "The Three Poisons," as a chapter in the book

Meanwhile, and this is the central point of my talk today and Freeman's book and something I've focused on for decades: there's a windfall at hand of safe, renewable, clean energy -- if only it would be fully pursued.

But these vested interests, working with their partners in the U.S. government, have fought that. These energy technologies are energy that we can live with, energy that can unhook us from oil, coal and nuclear.

An example of a renewable energy bonanza is hot dry rock geothermal energy. It's a technology originated by the U.S -- at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It turns out that below half the earth, two to six miles down, it's extremely hot. When naturally flowing water hits those hot rocks and has a place to come up, you get geysers like in California or Iceland. But, the Los Alamos scientists found, water can be sent down an injection pipe to hit the hot dry rock below and rise up second production pipe as super-heated water that can turn a turbine and generate electricity or furnish heat. They built a model hot dry rock facility at Fenton Hill near the lab. I was there in the 90s, and the system worked great.

Others in media were equally enthusiastic. As Fortune headlined an article: "Using Hot Rocks to Generate Energy. The biggest -- and cleanest -- power source on earth."

As the New York Times wrote: "The estimated energy potential of hot dry rock nationwide is 10 million quads -- more energy than this country uses in thousands of years."

Here's a television news piece I did:


That was some statement from Dave Duchane, a respected, careful scientist, that "hot dry rock is has an almost unlimited potential to supply all the energy needs of the United States and all the world."

So what happened? A request for proposal -- an RFP -- was prepared by Los Alamos inviting industry take over the Fenton Hill facility that you just saw and to "produce and market energy" from it. It was to be an initial step in getting hot dry rock technology out there into the United States. But on its way to Washington, the RFP was cancelled by the Department of Energy. Cancelled because hot dry rock was seen as too much of a threat to other kinds of energy, sources at Los Alamos have told me. And the Department of Energy ordered the Fenton Hill facility decommissioned.

Some work has restarted with hot dry rock geothermal in the U.S. But much, much more is going on in other countries among them Australia, The Phillipines, Switzerland and Japan.

During the oil crisis of the 70s President Jimmy Carter set up what's now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The 1,000-employee NREL in Golden, Colorado is a beacon for a sustainable, independent energy future.

Let's consider hydrogen -- it's the fuel choice for locomotion in the future. For moving vehicles of all types -- and more.

As environmental analyst Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, in his book EcoEconomy: Building an Economy for the Earth, says: "In the eco-economy, hydrogen will be the dominant fuel, replacing oil, much like oil replaced coal and coal replaced wood. Since hydrogen can be stored and used as needed, it provides perfect support for an energy economy with wind and solar power as the main pillars. If this pollution-free, carbon-free energy source can be developed sooner rather than later, many of our present energy-related problems can be solved. Electricity and hydrogen can together provide energy in all the forms needed to operate a modern economy, whether powering computers, fueling cars, or manufacturing steel."

The ideal way to produce hydrogen? Through solar energy breaking water down into its two components: hydrogen and oxygen.

Indeed, that's exactly what's being worked on at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Here's my interview with John Turner, senior scientist, at NREL.


Here is Dr. Turner, another respected, careful scientist speaking of "sunlight to hydrogen -- basically an inexhaustible fuel...the forever fuel."

The hydrogen-through-solar-energy approach of NREL is also the way Volkswagen envisions a hydrogen infrastructure. It has opened a solar hydrogen filling station in Germany built in collaboration with the German solar energy company Solvis. You drive up and see a large solar array which, through electrolysis, produces hydrogen from water. And you fill'er-up -- with hydrogen. It's all part, says Volkswagen, of people being able to move around in "emission-neutralized vehicles at standard market prices."

That combination of endless hydrogen from water and endless solar from the sun to produce it is being called green hydrogen. But what has the administration of George W. Bush been up to -- with its cronies in the coal, oil and nuclear industries -- looking to use coal, oil and gas, and nuclear power to produce hydrogen.

Not long ago I was in Idaho where, at the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear power plant -- yes, a nuclear power plant -- is being built to make hydrogen. To get clean hydrogen -- and when hydrogen burns, all that's left is water vapor -- the Bush administration would use atomic power with all its dangers: the potential for catastrophic accidents, routine radioactive emissions, the production of nuclear waste that somehow must be safeguarded for millennia, problems of nuclear proliferation, and so forth.

And, according to The Financial Times, "you come up with a requirement of about 4,000 reactors" needed to be constructed in the U.S. to produce the nuclear power-produced hydrogen to replace gas."

Talking about screwing up a great idea. As Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, says: "President Bush and the environmental community agree that hydrogen is America�s future. We disagree on where to get the hydrogen from. The White House would like to extract hydrogen from coal and natural gas and by harnessing nuclear power to the task ---locking us into a black hydrogen future. The environmental community would like to use renewable sources of energy like wind, solar, hydro and geothermal to extract hydrogen from water or to extract hydrogen from biomass -- a green hydrogen future."

A coalition -- the Green Hydrogen Coalition -- which includes Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Foundation on Economic Trends, and others, charges that the Bush administration is "attempting to hijack America's hydrogen future to promote the interests of the coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries."

Returning to that good U.S. Department of Energy laboratory committed to clean, safe, renewable power -- the National Renewable Energy Laboratory-- I think what I have been most impressed visiting there has been that whatever division I went to, the outlook is for boundless energy. Not only by using solar to generate hydrogen but through new amazing solar energy technologies including "thin film photovoltaic," scientists at NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility say that through solar we could get all the energy we need.

"Thin film photovoltaic" -- developed by NREL with the solar industry -- is quite something. Different than conventional rigid solar panels put on roofs, it involves flexible membranes impregnated with high-efficiency solar collectors. These sheets of solar-collecting membranes can be applied over glass buildings. Skyscrapers that rise in Manhattan or Chicago or office buildings here in Poughkeepsie could serve as electricity generators. "Thin film photovoltaic" is is now being widely used in Europe.

At NREL's National Wind Technology Center, scientists speak about wind providing all the energy we need. They were pioneers, working with the wind power industry, in the great advances in wind energy in recent years -- especially the development of turbines with highly-efficient blades. Wind turbines that can be -- and are...being placed on land and increasingly, in Europe, offshore. Bluewater Wind is getting set to build the first offshore wind farm off Delaware. It would be this country's first.

Wind is now the fastest growing energy technology. Last year, wind energy grew 25 percent worldwide and that kind of future annual growth is predicted. Wind energy costs a fifth of what it did in the 1980s -- and is now fully competitive with other energy technologies -- and a continuing downward cost trend is anticipated.

And at NREL's National Bioenergy Center, the scientists say biomass could fulfill a huge portion of the world energy needs -- and we're not talking here about using food stocks, corn, but switchgrass and poplar trees and other, again, non-food energy crops.

The scientists at NREL might not be right on any single energy source -- but all together these and other renewable energy sources, can, in a mix, provide all the energy we need. And energy we can live with.

As NREL declares on its website: "There's no shortage of renewable energy resources."

And there's so many more:

Consider: wave power. In Portugal, a wave power project has just begun. Pelamis Wave Power, a Scottish company, has engineered it -- a line of machines will be tapping nature's constant ocean power.

And tidal energy. The government of Novia Scotia is moving ahead with tapping the enormous power of the 40 and 50 foot tides that twice a day rush in and out of the Bay of Fundy-- driven by the moon.

And there's micro or distributed power, returning to the vision of Thomas Edison who saw small power plants providing electricity -- this way cutting energy loss from transmitting electricity over long distances.

And throughout, we must remember efficiency, a key across the board. Here's my interview with energy analyst Amory Lovins.


Here's the current issue of New Scientist magazine: "A Special Issue," it says: "A Brighter Future. Running the World on Guilt-Free Energy."

As the magazine editorializes, "Our sustainable future. The means to generate zero-carbon electricity are already here." It continues: "The UN says the renewable energy that can already be harnessed economically would supply the world's electricity needs 15 times over. As yet only a tiny proportion of electricity is generated this way, but replacing existing coal, gas and oil-fired power stations with renewables and you achieve a colossal environmental win...It's time on with making it a reality."

There is a political dimension to all this, however. Energy is not necessarily a partisan issue. It was the Clinton administration's DOE which put the kabosh on the hot dry rock facility at Fenton Hill.

And I don't want to get highly political in this presentation -- but there are tremendous differences on energy between the two candidates for president up for election next week. John McCain's call for many more polluting, catastrophic accident-prone, multi-billion dollar nuclear plants, and Sarah Palin's call to "drill baby drill" for oil in sensitive marine environments, is just the wrong direction. Let me note that I have a connection with the McCain family. His oldest daughter was my student. Indeed, has heard my findings on nuclear and renewable energy. I wish she had some pull with her father.

Barak Obama, meanwhile, has long thoroughly embraced safe, clean renewable energy technologies.

Renewables Are Ready was the title of a book written by two Union of Concerned Scientists staffers in 1995. They're more than ready now. And so are we -- after all the manipulation and, yes, tyranny of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Nuclear. More than ready for energy we can live with.

Now, questions.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Protecting People from Poisons

The European Union has just come out with new restrictions on chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases—and U.S. chemical companies and the Bush administration are moaning and groaning.

New laws of the European Union require that chemical manufacturers show that a chemical is safe before it enters commerce.

This, notes the Washington Post, ”is the opposite of policies in the United States” where we depend on the government to act, if it does, and it comes “at a time when consumers are increasingly worried about the long-term consequences of chemical exposure.”

The European approach is an outgrowth of the Precautionary Principle which states that if an activity or product might cause severe or irreversible harm to people or the environment the burden of proof falls on those behind that activity or product—in this case, chemicals—to show that it would not do harm. The Precautionary Principle has been spreading around the world in recent years.

The Center for International Environmental Law says the new EU laws will “compel companies to be more responsible for their products.”

In the U.S., control of toxic chemicals has been—well, a sham. The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976 but, noted the Washington Post in its article on the new European Union laws, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has banned only five chemicals since that time.

Indeed, said the Post, the EPA hasn’t even been able to ban asbestos under the act, even though it is “widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries.”

There are 80,000 chemicals on the U.S. market, noted the Post, and the U.S. government “has had little or no information about the health hazards or risks of most of those chemicals.”

American chemical companies would have to either comply with the new EU laws or lose access to a market of 27 countries and 500 million people. Mike Walls, director of government and regulatory affairs for the American Chemistry Council, complains that some its chemical manufacturer members will be unable to “afford the cost of compliance” with the new European Union laws.

What about all the people who get sick and die, and the cost to them of the current way toxic chemicals have been distributed?

The European Union is on the right track—and the U.S. should have similar laws protecting people from poisons.

Green Light for Nuclear-Powered Amphibious Assault Ships

New large U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships will be required to be nuclear powered as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009 signed into law by President George W. Bush on Tuesday, October 14.

The Senate had originally not included this provision in its version of the act. It had been part of the House version, pushed by Representative Gene Taylor, chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. A major shipyard for building amphibious assault ships, Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems facility, is located in his Mississippi district.

But in recent weeks, the Senate Armed Services Committee added under a section of the act titled “Policy Relating to Major Combatant Vessels of the Strike Forces of the United States Navy,” a parallel requirement that new “amphibious assault ships including dock landing ships (LSD), amphibious transport-dock ships (LPD), helicopter assault ships (LHA/LHD) and amphibious command ships (LCC) if such vessels exceed 1,500 dead weight ton…displacement” be nuclear-powered.

Safe-energy and environmental groups have been critical of the scheme.

“This reckless plan gives ‘we'll fight them on the beaches’ a whole new sinister meaning," said Linda Gunter of Beyond Nuclear of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. "If one of these amphibious ships is hit, or has an accident, we would be fighting a tide of radioactivity on beaches that could leave them contaminated indefinitely."

“Expanding the use of nuclear technology as a form of propulsion puts our sailors at risk,” said Jim Riccio of Greenpeace U.S.A. Also, because “nuclear-powered vessels are already rejected from ports around the world, it undermines the ability to actually use them.” Further, they would be “more of a target” for terrorists. “And what if the Cole had been nuclear powered?”

Indeed, if the U.S.S. Cole, struck by suicide bombers who crashed into it with explosives off Yemen in 2000, had been nuclear-powered, a nuclear disaster could have occurred killing many more than the 17 crewmembers who died.

The Navy has also been concerned because the price of the nuclear-powered amphibious assault ships is estimated at $1.5 billion-plus each, some $700 million more than if built with conventional power systems. There would also be the tens of millions in cost for their eventual radioactive decontamination and disposal.

The rationale for the plan, which Taylor’s subcommittee had included in the House version of the act, is that “the future naval force should not be reliant on the availability of fossil fuel for fleet operations. Removing the need for access to fossil fuel sources significantly multiplies the effectiveness of the entire battle forces.”

The National Defense Authorization Bill of 2008 required that all new U.S. aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines be nuclear-powered. The 2009 act’s provision that amphibious ships, too, be nuclear-powered is set up as an amendment to this.

The New Scientist, a British magazine, noted in a June 14th article on the U.S. plan for nuclear-powered assault ships that the “vessels’ position in combat can…vary—from a ‘stand-off’ over-the-horizon location to be being moored to a pier in a combat zone.” It added that “a U.S. Navy website confirms that such ships ‘are designed to get in harm’s way.’”

Another problem involves nuclear proliferation. “Military reactor fuel,” said the New Scientist, “can reach 90 percent enrichment level.” That is atomic bomb-grade. “This could make reactor maintenance sites at U.S. bases in ports around the world a tempting target for any thief intent on making weapons-grade fuel for a bomb.”

The Congressional Research Service, in a December 2006 report to Congress, examined a variety of non-oil energy alternatives for Navy ships. Titled “Navy Ship Propulsion Technologies: Options for Reducing Oil Use,” it considered “integrated electric-drive propulsion,” fuel cells, solar power, nuclear energy and various “synthetic fuels” especially “alternative hydrocarbon fuels.” It noted that the Navy “started making its own biodiesel fuel” in a pilot program in 2003.

This report said that “shifting” amphibious assault ships to using nuclear power “might make them potentially less welcome in the ports of countries with strong anti-nuclear sentiments” and “reduce the number of potentially suitable location for forward-homeporting the ships.”

A May 2008 Congressional Research Service Report, “Navy Nuclear-Powered Surface Ships: Background Issues, and Options for Congress,” related that in the 1960s the Navy began building nuclear-powered cruisers and nine were constructed, indeed at one point Congress mandated it, but after 1975 “procurement of nuclear-powered cruisers was halted…due to…costs.”

In addressing environmental impacts, it spoke of “those associated with mining and processing uranium to fuel reactors, and with storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel cores, radioactive waste water from reactors, and the reactors and other radioactive components of retired nuclear-powered ships.” Also, “a very serious accident involving a nuclear-powered Navy ship…or a major enemy attack on a nuclear-powered Navy ship might damage the ship’s hull and reactor compartment enough to cause a release of radioactivity.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Alan Greenspan and the Economic Meltdown

As the economy melts down, not enough attention is being given to the motivation of Alan Greenspan that led to his role—a major one—in causing this mess.

Greenspan, from the time he was in his late 20’s to now, has been an ardent follower of Ayn Rand and her view of extreme laissez-faire capitalism. In the early 1950s Greenspan joined Rand’s inner circle. He wrote for Rand’s newsletter and authored several essays in her 1966 book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, which in non-fiction form offered the economic philosophy presented in Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Rand stood besides Greenspan in 1974 when he was sworn in to his first job in the federal government, as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Gerald Ford.

Greenspan’s close personal—and ideological—relationship with Rand continued until her death in 1982.

He was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve by Ronald Reagan in 1987—and somehow stayed, through Reagan, the first George Bush, Bill Clinton and then the second George Bush, until 2006 when his fifth term as head of the Federal Reserve Board ended. He was replaced by Ben Bernanke—the person we see often these days trying to deal with the crisis.

Greenspan “didn’t believe in regulation,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz. His perspective was “self-regulation—an oxymoron.” For Greenspan, it was an oxymoron rooted in the Rand perspective.

Meanwhile, when the economy wobbled, Greenspan sought to deal with it by lowering credit rates precipitously—to allow people to get mortgages at rock-bottom rates thus creating what became the real estate boom. And he promoted adjustable rate mortgages.

As warnings came of this boom, which had sent the prices of housing up to stratospheric levels, going bust, Greenspan did nothing.

The New York Times, in the middle of its extensive October 9th examination of Greenspan’s “legacy” as Federal Reserve chairman and its link to the financial crisis, noted: “A professed libertarian, he counted among his formative influences the novelist Ayn Rand, who portrayed collective power as an evil force set against the enlightened self-interest of individuals. In turn, he showed a resolute faith that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly.”

The article, by Peter S. Goodman, declared: “Over the years, Mr. Greenspan helped enable an ambitious American experiment in letting market forces run free. Now, the nation is confronting the consequences.”

How did such a fringe figure become central to the U.S. economy?