30 May 2010

Some Things, Once Broken, Can't Be Fixed

After 40 days and 40 nights the ruptured wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico continues to gush oil and gas. Plans A, B, and C have failed. Plans E, F, and G are next. The world is realizing that some things may be beyond the reach of current technology to fix, especially things that haven't happened before at this scale or in this environment.

Presumably much will be learned from the attempts to deal with this event that will be of use in (inevitable) future disasters of a similar nature. We seem to be willing to boldly go where none has gone before long before we learn how to boldly fix the messes we are capable of making when we get there.

Who knew it could be this bad? Well, both BP and various U.S. regulatory agencies should have known. If they didn't know, what business did they have permitting or undertaking such activities? Or is U.S. policy to roll the dice and hope problems don't become apparent until the opposition party is in a position to take the blame? Or, even more cynically, is our policy to accept a certain loss of life, treasure and environmental quality as part of the price for a well-oiled society.

The Deepwater Horizon event has probably resulted in the release of one or two million barrels of petroleum into the sea. Thus it is fast gaining on the leading releases of modern times (see list here).

When financial firms were incompetent and took on too much risk some of them went out of business or became wards of the state. Could the same happen to an oil company? BP is exposed to tens of billions of dollars of costs, fines, judgments and liability from this accident. Its market capitalization is already down to $134 billion. Another industrial accident put paid to Union Carbide Corporation (Bhopal disaster).

It is certainly evident that this disaster will drive up the cost of oil exploration and development. There will be greater regulatory burdens, higher insurance costs, and more costly (and one hopes more effective) procedures and other requirements. Deepwater drilling is accepted because it is supposed to keep oil prices down by increasing supply (or at least by preventing supply from declining as fast as it otherwise might). But drilling this particular well in this particular way will result in higher oil prices. Enjoy your oil.

[crossposted from the HaraBara blog]

16 May 2010

Was This Spill Necessary?

Some say the harm from the Deepwater Horizon gusher is regrettable, but such incidents are a necessary price to pay for adequate U.S. oil supplies. The country needs the oil, and accidents will happen, but the alternative is oil starvation, they say. Is this true?

Let's say the oil that would have been produced from the
Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well would have satisfied 1% of U.S. oil demand at some future time. (All Gulf of Mexico oil makes up about 10% of U.S. petroleum consumption.) Are you sure you couldn't find a way to reduce your petroleum consumption 1% and thus make drilling this well unnecessary?

71% of U.S. petroleum consumption is for transportation, so that is the place to look for savings. You could reduce your personal demand for oil drilling to supply your transportation needs by 1% by:
  • Reducing total miles driven by 1%. If you drive your vehicle 12,000 miles per year, a 1% reduction is 120 miles per year, or about 1,700 feet per day. Think you can cut one-third of a mile per day off your driving?
  • Reducing fuel consumption by 1% by improving fuel efficiency. Your mileage may vary, but say you currently get 20 miles per gallon, averaged over the whole year. Could you get 20.2 mpg?
    • If you drove at 65 mph on the highway instead of 70 mph you could improve fuel economy by 5 to 10%. Seventy-five miles per hour is even worse. When you drive 75, you are saying "drill and spill, baby, I'm in a hurry".
    • Driving aggressively (accelerating with three-quarter throttle rather than one-quarter throttle) cut fuel efficiency more than 30% in Edmunds' tests. A significant fraction of U.S. petroleum consumption is wasted getting to the next stopsign a few seconds sooner. Could a light foot save the planet?
    • Use your cruise control on the highway on level terrain. This can improve fuel economy by 5-10%. But you probably already do this. Or do you have oil and money to burn?
If even a fraction of drivers achieved these savings the Macondo well might not have been necessary, or economical. (If U.S. drivers significantly reduced their fuel consumption the price of gas would go down, and dangerous and expensive wells and tar sands would become less attractive to oil companies. The U.S. accounts for 23% of world petroleum consumption, so U.S. demand has a significant impact on total demand and price.)

Someone who doesn't take these steps to reduce oil demand has no right to complain about fuel costs, oil companies' profits or oil spills.

[Data from EIA, Gibson Consulting, EPA, Edmunds.com here and here]

[crossposted from the HaraBara blog]

07 May 2010

Toasternomics--Power Use By Appliances

How many pieces of toast can you get for one kilowatt-hour of electricity? A new on-line tool/toy from GE will tell you. The answer is 36. Let's see what else we can learn!

How far could you drive emitting the same amount of CO2 your appliances cause in a year? Probably tens of thousands of miles. My own appliance mix (no air conditioning or heater--in temperate San Francisco) adds up to about 700 gallons of gas worth of CO2. Like driving 20,000 miles a year even though I have no car!

For the same kilowatt-hour that made 36 pieces of toast you could run your central air conditioning for 12 minutes, or brew 3 pots of coffee in your coffee maker. Or you could get one-third of the way through washing a load of dishes in your dishwasher.

One kW h will run your refrigerator for five hours. To run it for a year will cost about $114 in West Virginia, or $264 in Alaska. In Alaska you would probably also have a chest freezer, for the moose, at $383 per year.

Enjoy this toy, using the electricity costs for your state. Set it for your own appliance mix. Americans have some of the most energy-intensive homes on the planet, because they are large, often air conditioned, and we have lots of gadgets. And the calculations in this tool don't account for the emissions from manufacturing and distributing all those gadgets.

[crossposted from the HaraBara blog]