Monday, March 5, 2012

How About Aiming Higher?

Image credit: Cosmic Beaver

Economist Dean Baker wrote this at his blog yesterday:
It is unlikely that drivers would even notice the difference between a policy where we told the oil industry that it could drill wherever it wants and pay no attention to the number of people it kills in the process or the resulting damage to the environment and local economies and a policy where we banned all new offshore drilling. Over the next 2 years the difference would be virtually non-existent and even after 10 years it is unlikely to change the price of gas by more than 2-3 percent.

There Is Little Disagreement That Drilling Off the U.S. Coast Will Have Almost Zero Impact on the Price of Gas
Why is that? Part of the reason is something I wrote last year, when I was discussing the Obama Administration's decision to open up more areas of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling:
According to the CIA World Factbook entry on the United States, we use roughly 19.5 million barrels of oil a day. Just multiplying that number by 365 shows that we use about 7.1 billion barrels a year. Subtracting our domestic oil production from that total, we import roughly 4 billion barrels a year. Everything they hope to find in the areas Obama is proposing to open up is about seven month's worth of consumption, or a year's worth of imports. For this, we will risk turning valuable beaches and fisheries into oil slicks.

Change, Baby, Change
Understanding why this would make almost no difference requires only the most modest understanding of mathematics. Most of the available oil is elsewhere. We are the world's biggest importer of oil. We are also the world's tenth largest (See NOTE 1) producer of oil. We produce lots of the stuff, and yet we continue to import large quantities. Drilling in all the offshore deposits we know about won't change that one bit.

As Dr. Baker mentions, there is a single market for oil. There is no reason to think that the oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico won't end up in European or Latin American gas tanks.

What will make the price of oil products easier to live with, and lower our imports of them, is to reduce demand for them. There are a number of ways to do that. Conserving energy is one way to do that. Finding alternative fuels is another, which is why this program may have at least as much impact on our oil imports as anything else the Obama Administration has done:
Caption: From the original article: An F-16 from the 180th Fighter Wing undergoes preflight checks before taxiing down the runway, Feb. 12, 2012, at Ohio Air National Guard Base. The jet is operating on a 50/50 blend of conventional and biofuel as a part of a field service evaluation.

Image credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/USAF

In a joint effort by Airmen from the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Airmen from the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing, the F-16 Fight Falcon is currently undergoing a field service evaluation of biofuel.
Although other airframes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, have been certified to use biofuel for unrestricted operations, this is the first evaluation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Two F-16s from the 180th FW fleet have been designated to test the 50/50 blend of Jet Propellant-8 petroleum and Hydroprocessed Renewable Jet fuel derived from the camelina plant. Camelina is essentially a weed that grows throughout the United States and requires very little horticulture.

Ohio Airmen help F-16 go 'green'
The article goes on to explain that the biofuel is produced using algae. Taking something that is basically yard waste, then applying some goo to it that can be produced locally to make jet fuel is, potentially, a much bigger reduction of our foreign oil demands. In all, we burn the equivalent of a half billion barrels a year of petroleum as jet fuel. Reducing that by half could save at least a quarter of a billion barrels a year in imports.

How troublesome is this new kind of fuel? After all, jet engines are finely balanced machines. It doesn't take much at all to turn them into clattering junk. The Ohio Air National Guard article explains:
Another goal for the researchers and developers was to make the transition as seamless as possible. To date, there has been no additional training, equipment or maintenance required to begin using the fuel.

"When we first started this we were a little concerned because a few years ago we made the switch from JP4 to JP8 jet fuel," said Col. Scott Reed, the 180th Maintenance Group commander. "The difference between the two caused a few hiccups initially. Some of the gaskets and O-rings didn't expand as they normally would in the presence of the fuel, so we had leaks."
"The truth of it is there has been absolutely no noticeable difference whatsoever," Reed said. "There have been no fuel leaks, no operational impact."

Ohio Airmen help F-16 go 'green'
In short, it's been less of a problem than transitioning from an earlier version of purely petroleum-based fuel, and the planes that use it can use either that or the Air Force's standard fuel.

We're a lot of testing and a couple of hundred biochemical plants away from producing that much biofuel, but it's a resource we'll never run out of. In the long run, it makes a lot more sense to try things like this than to expose our beaches and fishing grounds to the kind of damage we saw last year.

Some of the earlier biofuels efforts by the Pentagon were initiated by the Bush Administration. I think that fact alone should show that not wanting to be dependent on imported fuel for our own defense is something of a no-brainer. Of course, there are plenty of other good reasons to make ourselves less dependent on petroleum products, particularly those we import from politically unstable parts of the world. We can keep risking our recreational areas, our wilderness refuges, and our food supply by continuing to open up more potentially hazardous areas to drilling, or we can, umm, aim higher.

NOTE 1: That list has us at number eleven, but the members of the European Union are also listed there. We are tenth, whether you count Norway as part of the EU, or ignore the EU as being double-counted.

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