Monday, March 31, 2008

Peak Oil and Tibet at the Statehouse

I was at the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Peak Oil Hearing. I went as a sceptic, having recently listened to the President of Shell America interviewed by Charlie Rose (more in a subsequent post, when I finish my notes, but I can insert here that he shared that notion that Watts will become conflicted again if there is not a serious increase in availability of gasoline at lower prices), and having spent a lot of time around MIT, where the word is that oil will simply increase in price as it becomes more scarce. I left not as a convert, but as a person who realized that there may be something in the Peak Oil argument. I was particularly intrigued to learn that the Department of Energy has been funding Peak Oil studies, Portland OR has had a committee looking at how to cope with a Peak Oil situation, and that the State of CT has also been looking into the matter. I will be looking into it further, and sharing thoughts and references.

This is the reasoning I find compelling, whether or not it corresponds to a situation approximating Peak Oil: The demand for oil is rising rapidly in China and India as they develop their economies and their people become richer, demanding a higher standard of living that requires more oil. This at a time when demand has already exceeded supply. Simply economics yields a prediction of ever increasing oil prices. Although the Peak Oil people argued that tappable oil reserves are in fact misrepresented on the high side, I agree with the MIT view that the higher the price for oil, the more oil can be tapped from more costly sources, such as tar sands and oil shale. The problem is that we cannot burn any more fossil fuels, and that places a limit on oil consumption. But the further, and possibly more stringent limit at this point may be refinery capacity, which produces as I see it a modified Peak Oil situation. Refineries are not being built, and whenever there is a refinery malfunction or explosion, more capacity is lost, at least for a time. According to a colleague, the timeline for getting new refineries on line is 2-3 years in emergency priority such as existed during WWII, and 12-13 years for just the permitting under today's priorities. This strongly suggests gas and diesel shortages will be normal, and prices will continue to rise. Again, simple economics would indicate that they would rise independent of the refinery situation, because demand exceeds supply.

Meanwhile, this was the scene outside the Statehouse: the Boston area Tibetan community demonstrating about the Chinese violence in Tibet and their desire for a free Tibet.

And this is what was happening a couple hours later at Harvard ... a lecture by a Harvard Professor and the Julliard's first violinist (as the others were stranded in Cleveland due to airline cancellations) interspersed with recorded playing (the consolation prize) by the Julliard String Quartet, all a detailed view of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 59 No. 1. Not nearly the attendance we can expect at the Final Four, but more than attended Ed Markey and Ian Bowle's much more important presentation on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and a lot more than at the Free Tibet demonstration at the Statehouse. (Note that the Tibet demonstrators did get a lot of passerby attention.) Is this skewed priorities? Well, for me it has to do with working very long hours at my profession, and a passionate involvement with music. Because I work evenings and weekends, I feel OK about taking in an occasional special music event, even if it is during the day. The others I spoke with at Harvard are the same way although a little different because most were a lot older than I am. It is very hard to spend all our time and resources addressing the world's challenges. The couple who sat next to me at the concert and shared their score with me were very much worried about global warming. They said that they had heard enough about it, and felt it was time to get into action mode doing something about it.

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