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by Larry

June, 2010

Power Jeopardy

It is ironic that bans on off-shore oil and natural gas drilling, for fear they might lead to spills that would harm nearby beaches, estuaries, and marshlands, resulted in more perilous deep water drilling which, as we all now know, has lead to the worst petroleum spillage in American, if not world, history. Yet it is axiomatic that extreme energy needs give rise to the taking of extreme risks to secure it.

United States presidents since Nixon, about two generations ago, have been calling on our nation to wean itself of so much dependence on energy, all to no avail. And of course we are not alone, just the biggest per capita consumer of energy on the planet. China, even with lower energy use per individual, will soon pass us in total energy demand simply by virtue of that country's enormous population, 1.3 billion and climbing (currently one billion larger than the U. S.). Energy needs for India are not far behind. Meanwhile, our huge dependence on energy means we must import the majority of what we use, as a result funding some of the very nations with whom we are in dispute,

Multiple cameras on JPL's MISR instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft were used to create this false-color view of oil moving into Louisiana's coastal wetlands. Oil appears in shades of inky blue to black; silt-laden water from the Mississippi River is red and violet; and land and clouds appear in shades of cyan.
Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team
such as Iran, and necessitating so much borrowing that we now are dependent on a major rival, China, to bankroll our economy to the tune of an untenable $2 trillion. China, a communist country, is now in a position to dictate terms to us. Should we ever be in military conflict with the People's Republic of China, not only can they attack via conventional, nuclear, and internet hacking weaponry, but they can also hobble our economy by simply suspending investments or selling their vast store of U. S. dollars.

All in all, the total global demand for energy has multiple adverse effects and yet is climbing through the proverbial roof, just when climatologists warn we must curb energy use to avoid a disaster from the effects on the land, sea, and air environments, rising temperatures, changes in ocean currents, hazardous new weather patterns, etc. So, we should not be surprised if in the quest for ever more important fuel and power access there are along the way a few horrendous economic and environmental disasters which, like the BP managed oil rig platform explosion in April of this year and the subsequent leaking of up to 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico everyday, may rival the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy in scope before their effects are fully contained.

For all the after-the-fact hand wringing and belated Cassandra crying over spilt oil and about "Who could have imagined..." that something as terrible as this could have happened, though regulators were not doing their jobs in reining in the oil industry any more than they had been holding the investment banks or mortgage lenders in check a few years before (leading to the near collapse of the entire economy in 2008), it is hardly news that very bad things tend to happen when our species does more and more unsafe things to acquire the resources to which it feels entitled. It is at least hypocritical to exclusively blame the oil industry when the inevitable occurs, though we in fact encourage it to cut corners and work flat out, 24 hours x 7, competitively pursuing every last drop of petroleum product for the black-hole-like, ever widening maw of our ceaseless insistence on for more and more power.

Can we at any rate say that we have seen the last of the horrible consequences of an unquenchable appetite for greater supplies of energy? Not hardly. A host of other potential debacles are waiting in the wings, and some may make this year's Gulf oil spill appear tame by comparison. According to a recent issue (June 28, 2010) of Forbes magazine, in "If You Think That Oil Spill Is Bad..." by David Fisher and Christopher Helman (pages 30-32), the increasing complexity of existence in a populous 21st Century will likely bring about progressively more interdependent and costly misfortunes. A few of these include:

  • A chemical plant explosion, perhaps in a metropolis, such as London, Houston, Mexico City, or Chicago. Hundreds or thousands might be killed with many more receiving disabling injuries, and the monetary costs could be in the tens of billions from such as accident, for instance at a petrochemical complex, with releases or burning of adjacent stored fuels and other hazardous materials.

  • A nuclear meltdown, for instance at a poorly managed Third World plant. Located close to population centers and with the associated risk of radioactive gases' release, that could spread across a wide area of the most dense parts of the globe, the devastation might rival that from a small atomic war.

  • A liquefied natural gas fire is a hazard not particularly in the popular consciousness, but with supertankers now carrying 100,000 tons at a time of liquefied methane to U. S. ports, it may not have escaped the notice of terrorists. An explosion of this much fuel would be bad enough, but if the methane were to leak out in liquid form and then be ignited, the resultant fire would burn with greater intensity than oil and probably could not be put out until all the fuel had been consumed along with any urban area combustibles in the vicinity.

  • A failure of a dam's integrity is a greater possibility these days. Tens of thousands of dams were built in decades past to provide hydroelectric power as well as regulation of the dammed water supplies. However, many of these structures have not been properly maintained. An estimated 25,000 or more of our nation's dams now pose a significant to high risk of peril to life and property, per the Emergency Management Administration, the Forbes article authors report.

For better or worse, though, none of these possible accidental or terrorist related incidents would be likely to reach the magnitude of natural disasters that might occur at any time. Not to mention large meteor strikes, the eruption of a volcano in a densely populated area, such as Italy in the shadow of Vesuvius, could pose a threat to millions and create havoc costing about $100 billion or more. Seen in this perspective, then, while I personally think much more should be done to alter the direction in which we seem headed, some of our most negative power related accidents may still not be sufficient to cause us to curtail our frenetic acquisition and use of various types of energy, even if in their pursuit sometimes "sh-t happens."

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