I am haunted this early morning (0230) by a phrase seen on a blog comment yesterday.
Joe Shuster, author of “Beyond Fossil Fools”, was once asked WHO he worked for (implying that he was a paid mouthpiece for some evil concern). His reply was simple, true and spot-on! He replied, “For my grandchildren.”
(You can find this quote in the thread that follows Meredith Angwin’s post on ANS Nuclear Cafe titled Talking about my (nuclear) generation.)
Joe is not the only pronuclear advocate who has the same motivation – many of us are grandparents who are working hard to leave behind a better world for our grandchildren than the one in which we currently live. We recognize the role that abundant, affordable, reasonably clean energy has played in our own prosperity.
We like the freedom to travel, to live in comfortable homes, to eat healthy, carefully prepared food and to drink clean water that is abundant enough for hot showers and swimming pools. We fear that our comfortable lifestyles will be distant memories if we do not succeed in convincing our fellow Americans (and Europeans) that there is a ready, willing and capable alternative energy source that is superior to burning fossil fuel on many measures of effectiveness including material investment, density, cost per unit energy, and cleanliness.
As part of my research for this post, I did a bit of searching for a good source of a quote that I remember reading several times over the past few decades. I found what I was looking for in an Economist opinion piece from October 23, 2003 titled The end of the Oil Age: Ways to break the tyranny of oil are coming into view. Governments need to promote them.
The quote I wanted came from Sheikh Zaki Yamani, a Saudi Arabian who served as his country’s oil minister for many years, and was credited with some of the actions that turned oil into a source of almost unimaginable wealth for his country’s ruling family. Here is what he frequently told his OPEC colleagues during the 1970s, a time when petroleum producers recognized their pricing power and succeeded in imposing more than four doublings in a single tumultuous decade.
“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”
Aside: The nominal price of a barrel of Arabian light crude oil increased from approximately $2.00 per barrel in 1970 to $40.00 per barrel in 1980. End Aside.
The reason I was searching for that quote is that I am certain that oil producers have long recognized that their commodity is in danger of being replaced by something far more capable – nuclear energy. There is a short, but important, information exchange described on page 488 of Daniel Yergin’s seminal work on the oil industry titled The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. During the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower sent an envoy named Robert Anderson to King Saud and Prince Faisal. The goal of the mission was to convince them to put pressure on President Nasser of Egypt to compromise and defuse the crisis. Here is how the exchange is described:
“In Riyadh, Anderson warned King Saud and Prince Faisal, the Foreign Minister, that the United States had made great technical advances that would lead to sources of energy much cheaper and more efficient than oil, potentially rendering Saudi and all Middle Eastern petroleum reserves worthless. The United States might feel constrained to make this technology available to the Europeans if the canal were to be a tool of blackmail.
And what might this substitute be, asked King Saud.
“Nuclear energy,” replied Anderson.”
Since they had been told by a very good source that their oil could lose its value because something cheaper and more efficient had been found, I am convinced that the oil and gas producers began working with all other non nuclear energy suppliers to suppress nuclear energy and to bank as much revenue as they could while their competition was contained in as small a piece of the energy market as possible. I am also convinced that there has been a series of American political decision makers in the past 5 decades who determined that suppressing nuclear energy while emphasizing hydrocarbon importance was in their best interest.
As often happens to me when doing background research, I got distracted by what I found and ended up reading several of the related articles from The Economist. The opinion piece I found with the quote was part of a special edition of the magazine marking the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973; I am pretty sure I remember reading that issue with great interest when it was first published. It was fascinating, sobering and kind of depressing to read it again through the lenses of current events.
We have frittered away the better part of another decade chasing ineffective and purposely weak alternatives to hydrocarbons. According to the articles in the Economist, the saving technologies would be hydrogen fuel cells, bioethanol, unconventional oil and conventional oil from Iraq and Siberia.
In the opinion of the authors of those 2003 articles looking back, the action that broke the oil price climb of the 1970s was energy efficiency; they completely overlooked the supply side effect of adding the equivalent of 508 million tons of oil per year to the energy market during the period from 1970-1995 from nuclear fission power plant expansions in the US, France, Japan, Germany, Russian Federation, Canada, UK, Ukraine, Sweden, South Korea, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan, Switzerland, Finland, and Bulgaria. (Interestingly enough, the amount of additional annual energy production from nuclear fission during that time frame is almost exactly as much as the 1980 peak in Saudi Arabian oil production of 509 million tons. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010)
During our most recent climb in oil prices, we have failed to lay the groundwork for lower future prices. In the United States, we have restored one nuclear plant to full operating condition after a shutdown that lasted nearly 20 years; we have restarted construction on a single nuclear plant whose construction was halted about a decade and a half ago; and we have begun site preparation work that might eventually lead to construction on four new nuclear units that could begin operating before the end of this decade.
Other than that, we have wasted tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer and utility investor money on enormous wind turbines that rarely achieve their advertised productivity and often fail completely when you need them the most – very cold, still winter days and very hot, muggy summer days.
We have also been told – frequently enough so that it counts as a drum
beat – that a methane gas inventory recount conducted during the spring and summer of 2009 has exposed a vast, previously unreachable resource base that provides one more excuse for not aggressively building new nuclear power plants as quickly as possible to avert future fossil fuel supply challenges.
For the record, the Potential Gas Committee report from June 18, 2009 computed that the total methane gas resource base in the United States, including proven, probable, possible and speculative resources counted as of the end of 2008 increased by 515 trillion cubic feet (TCF) to a total of 1836 TCF. That was a 39% increase from the Potential Gas Committee report of June 2007, which reported on the resource base as of the end of 2006.
The US is currently consuming 23 TCF of methane (aka “natural gas”) per year, so that report indicated that our natural gas resources will last 79 years instead of 57 years – as long as we do not allow the rate of consumption to increase and as long as we fully exploit all of the speculative resources, no matter whose water or land may be affected. As the grandfather of a 13-month-old granddaughter, both of those numbers indicate a frighteningly short period of time for for me to take action. Both of the resource longevity numbers are within her life expectancy.
Here is a thought provoking quote from a piece in the October 23, 2003 special edition titled Still holding customers over a barrel:
The Arab embargo has become a symbol of the political chaos and economic troubles endured by the West during the oil shocks of the 1970s. After decades of gradual decline in real terms, oil prices rocketed upwards (see chart 1). Most mainstream forecasters—including those at America’s Department of Energy—predicted that oil would cost over $100 a barrel by 2000.
A casual observer of the energy business today might find little changed from that tumultuous autumn of 30 years ago. Once again there is talk of scarcity and crisis. The Middle East is again on the brink of chaos, not only because of Arab countries’ resentment over America’s support for Israel, but also because of its military occupation of Iraq. And, after years of weakness in the 1990s, OPEC has sprung back to life. Although oil prices have remained around $30 a barrel for some time, and western economies are anaemic at best, the cartel shocked the market last month by voting to cut its output even further.
According to Bloomberg.com, oil closed yesterday at $107 per barrel, 3.6 times higher than it was less than 8 years ago. Natural gas prices are low as the winter heating season ends, but the smart money is betting on relatively near term price increases. For example, BHP Billiton just agreed to spend $4.75 billion to purchase a limited quantity of US natural gas reserves. That deal that will look a lot smarter when prices begin the inevitable climb. The climb will happen when the rate of extraction bumps up against material limits while the rate of demand is driven by many utility decision makers agreeing that it is time for all of them to pile into the gas market.
Based on recent public announcements, they have agreed that building new gas capacity is an easier choice than building nuclear plants that will produce power without petroleum for many decades into the future. Here is a quote from a recent speech by Bill Johnson, the chosen CEO of what will be one of the largest electric power utilities in the United States. He sees a bright but distant future for new nuclear plant capacity – sometime after his company finishes building new gas plants:
At Progress Energy, we’re already investing heavily in modernizing our generation system as well as our power grid. We’re retiring older coal plants – almost 30% of our North Carolina coal fleet – while building efficient new plants fueled by natural gas. And we’ve invested more than $2 billion in environmental retrofits at our more efficient coal plants.
As a solidly middle class guy who has enjoyed a comfortable, American lifestyle for his entire life, I am very worried about the prospects for my grandchildren IF we do not come to our collective senses and recognize that aggressively shifting our energy system from combustion to fission is the right course of action for long term prosperity.
We need to recognize that used nuclear fuel is a resource, not a waste, that dumping fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere for free shifts costs from producers to everyone else, and that depending on money-driven decision makers to purposely engage in creative destruction of their markets is a failed strategy.
We should recognize that oil, gas and coal producers are deceiving us when they buy advertising telling us that they believe that non nuclear alternatives are a viable path for the future. Perhaps they are not as worried about the future as I am. Their grandchildren will suffer less than most of ours – the wealthy will be able to afford to purchase energy they want while those who struggle at the margins will simply have to become better at following the advice of people like Amory Lovins. His answer to fuel supply challenges is to simply learn to do without.
I like my answer better – we should be working harder to enable future generations to do more with more readily available energy resources. There is no time like the present to prepare for the future. Do it for your grandchildren!
Wall Street Journal (February 23, 2011) IEA May Tap Oil Stockpiles
Detroit Free Press (February 23, 2011) Gas prices rise amid unrest in Middle East
Calgary Herald (February 23, 2011) Oil spikes as firms evacuate Libya staff
Financial Times (February 23, 2011) Reasons for oil not to hit $150. (Aside: Hoping for the best is not a strategy.)