On April 11, 2014, Roger Annis, a member of the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group, gave a talk at the University of California Santa Barbara. The talk was titled Oil, tar sands, coal, natural gas: What’s behind the expansion drive of Canada’s and North America’s fossil fuel industries?
It is a fascinating talk with some excellent slides that have maps of pipelines, railroads, refineries, and reservoir areas and show how they are all interconnected. He talks about proposed new pipelines, new drilling areas, new terminals and about the increased traffic being pushed through the existing infrastructure.
He describes the increasing contributions to the global emissions of CO2 and more noxious combustion products, the risks to our shared climate, the monetary motives, and the growing number of oil-by-rail accidents with a good description of the root causes and effects of the tragedy in Lac Megantic that killed 47 people.
Aside: The risks associated with oil-by-rail hit close to home for me this week with a derailment in downtown Lynchburg, VA, next door to my current home town. The tracks here run along the James River, an important tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. The river runs through a couple of hundred miles of southern Virginia from Lynchburg before it gets to the Bay. Dozens of communities along the way depend on the James for a variety of uses including their water supply.
The derailment resulted in the impressive fire ball and intense black smoke that is typical of the genre of oil-by-rail events, but the derailment also put three of the cars into the James River, releasing about 20,000-25,000 gallons (at last count) of crude oil.
Fortunately, no one was hurt; there is a little bit of a buffer between the tracks and most of the buildings downtown. Several hundred people were evacuated or cleared the area without any prompting. End Aside.
Roger introduced himself as a life-long Socialist and participant in a number of movements, starting with the movement to end the Vietnam War. His last job before he finished working was as an aircraft mechanic. He has also been a writer for many years and developed his skills while “at university.” (I put quotes on that phrase because it is one of those examples where people who speak different dialects of the English language have different ways of constructing sentences. In the US, someone would most likely have said “in college.”)
Roger’s talk was informed by his socialist lenses and he used phrases and chose words that clearly come from his experiences in movements and in writing about them.
Though I am not a socialist, I have several socialist friends. We share many of the same views about the importance of cooperative effort, the use of democratic principles to make the world a better place, and the risk of allowing people whose only measure of effectiveness is money to run the world. I’ve also never joined in any protests or carried any placards, but again, I have friends and associated who have. I understand that mode of communications and community building and sympathize with many of the causes.
Though nearly everyone would probably disagree with me at this point, I believe that there is a natural alliance opportunity between people like Roger and people like me. We both care deeply about our shared environment and about people. We both share a distrust of the people who run huge corporations for the sole benefit of their stockholders and we believe that the government has an important role to play in planning and enabling a more even sharing of prosperity among the people.
Roger and I are probably miles apart right now in regard to nuclear energy. I say that based on a couple of comments in his talk. He mentioned something about fighting against nuclear waste and he referred to the idea of using nuclear reactors to provide heat for Canadian tar sands extraction as particularly “crazy.” We are also miles apart on the idea of growth and prosperity.
Like many socialists, he believes that one of the sins of capitalism is a supposed dependence on relentless growth. He also indicates a distrust of competition; many socialists think it is much better if we all just get along and agree on what to do instead of each trying to do better than everyone else.
For me, nuclear energy is one of god’s ways of helping his people do more with less. Nuclear energy’s densely packed energy means that we should be able to figure out a way to use far less material in a actinide economy than in our current hydrocarbon economy AND be more abundantly supplied with reliable power. As the Ford commercials say, AND is better than OR.
The material use reduction enabled by atomic energy could be even more impressive than the one represented by my ‘i’ devices.
Here is an example of that particular material-savings technology. When my wife and I were first married, we owned a lot of recorded music on cassette tapes. Every time we went on a road trip, one of the first things we put into the car was three briefcase-sized boxes of tapes carrying our favorite music. Each box held 30 tapes; each tape contained two albums. (We did that ourselves so we could carry more music. We purchased each album in vinyl and then produced the traveling version.) The 180 albums that we were thus able to carry that way now fit on the old 8 GB iPod that I use as my workout entertainment AND there was room to double the library.
I added emphasis to the world “could” because we are not there yet. Our current nuclear energy technology is hugely inefficient and uses far more materials than needed. That just means we are only part way up our first ‘S’ curve of innovation to make the best possible use of the capabilities inherent in uranium, thorium and plutonium.
Competition is also one of my favorite activities, but my view is that it should be constructive, not destructive. Love of competition is what inspired me to become a swimmer. I have a cousin who is 11 months younger than I am. We were on vacation together the summer before 1st grade. He told me how he and his sisters had just joined a swim team. As boys will do, we then challenged each other to a race to the dock at the far end of the swimming area. It was a close race; I cannot remember who won, but after that race I asked my mom if we could find a swimming team.
Eleven years, 25 trophies, 90 medals, a slew of ribbons, a tiny scholarship offer and some great memories later, I dramatically slowed my swimming career and joined the Naval Academy Sailing Team. The experiences were almost all positive and I still have certain advantages from the techniques I honed in the thousands of hours of practice during those 11 years in the pool.
For example: all the way up until a few months before I retired from the Navy at age 53, I chose to perform a 500 yard swim instead of a 1.5 mile run. Even without practice for six months, I could jump in the pool and earn a grade of ‘excellent’. With just a little bit of training to get my muscles and breathing in better shape, I could earn an ‘outstanding’. With just a little more, I could max out and earn 100 points. My goal was always to swim the 500 in a time fast enough to qualify as ‘outstanding’ for a 21 year old. I’m not bragging, just pointing out the benefits of constructive competition.
Bringing the discussion back to energy, I believe that a free market solution to the challenge of fossil fuel industry expansion involves the effective use of nuclear energy to out compete fossil fuel in a growing number of applications. As nuclear wins more markets, the hydrocarbons in hard to reach, environmentally sensitive areas will lose their extraction value. There won’t be a push to build new pipes because there will no longer be any profit in spending the effort required to perform the extraction and the transportation.
When nuclear energy is allowed to compete more freely, it can beat fossil fuel because it is naturally endowed with some characteristics that fossil fuels can only wish they had. It has 1-5 million times as much energy per unit mass and when it releases its energy the products weigh less than the original and can be stored in the same amount of space.
One of the reasons that I slowed my swimming career is that I started getting beat more regularly by people who were gifted with superior tools. I realized that my dream of being the next Mark Spitz was probably not going to happen because I am only 5′ 10′ and don’t have large hands and feet. I’m still a little jealous of my little brother who is 6′ 3″ and has huge hands and size 12 feet. With his tools and my desire, we could have been contenders.
I’ve not terribly regretted my decision to cede swimming competition to others. As it turned out, my Olympic year would have been 1980, when I was 20 years old. Back then, in the pure amateur Olympic era, it was almost impossible to find a male swimmer in the Olympics who was either 16 or 24 years old. As you may or may not recall, President Carter decided that the US should boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. My buddies who did not find other competitive outlets were disappointed – to say the least.
I’m sure that most of the people who work in the hydrocarbon industry are going to be able to find other valuable ways to make a living in the actinide age. I’m not so sure about the capitalists whose wealth and power comes from the perception that the assets they control are vital and in somewhat short supply. Most of the time, I don’t worry too much about them; they have had plenty of time to read the writing on the wall.
In fact, I believe at least some of them not only read the writing, but believed it to be true and took action to hide the truth from others. There was a time when I projected my reinforced sense of fairness and integrity onto others, but I’m more mature now.
It’s pretty obvious that there are some people who believe that the Tonya Harding school of competition is the right way to go. At least some of those believers in “all’s fair in love, war and business” have worked hard to make it difficult for nuclear energy to enter or remain on the field of play.
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