04 April 2007

Petroleum: your all-natural, organic choice in energy

With trouble in the Middle East and gas prices approaching $3 per gallon, everyone is concerned about fuel prices. However, it seems most Americans have not changed their driving habits or dumped their gas-guzzling SUVs. Instead we are looking for salvation in biofuels (ethanol and bio-diesel) and hydrogen/fuel cell technology. What is conveniently forgotten is the cost of these technologies—both economic and environmental. The process of making biofuels generally consumes more than half of the energy that it produces, and is only feasible because of government subsidies. Worst of all, using agricultural resources for fuel instead of food means our grocery bills will increase—most adversely affecting the poor. Agricultural land, although plentiful, is a finite resource, as are the nutrients in that soil—which ironically, are usually supplemented by petroleum-based fertilizers. One insightful farmer noted “The ethanol craze means that we're going to burn up the Midwest's last six inches of topsoil in our gas-tanks.”

To me, it seems strange that ethanol and bio-diesel are considered a renewable, “green” energy source. I’m not an environmentalist; I just like pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of championing biofuels as a preferable alternative to petroleum. In terms carbon output, the only difference for biofuels is that the cultivation of inputs (corn, sugar, or switchgrass) supposedly offsets the burning of the resulting fuel later; however, in most cases, the land used to cultivate these crops would have some kind of carbon-sequestering plant life on it in any case. Furthermore, ground-level pollution from biofuel use and manufacture shows few advantages over petroleum. The fact of the matter is that biofuels are manufactured in a factory, whereas petroleum is naturally produced by the earth over millions of years from basically the same inputs. Granted, crude oil must be refined before it can be used (as gasoline, diesel, and other petrochemicals) but this processing is minimal compared to the manufacture of biofuels; in other words, switching from petroleum to biofuels requires expanding the capacity and/or number of already unpopular fuel plants (be they refineries or ethanol plants.)

The other alternatives for mobile/portable fuel are batteries, fuel cells, and hydrogen. These zero-emission energy sources sound great until you look at the source of the energy required to charge the system or extract hydrogen from water or other compounds (often petroleum.) Certainly real, renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar power would be great, but realistically these sources contribute only a small percentage to the total electricity used in the US, and—for practical reasons—this will remain so for a long time; electrical power will likely continue to be produced mainly from the dirtiest source of energy: coal.

Therefore, I propose that the most sensible course of action is to continue to use this perfect, natural source of energy for as long as we still have it. By virtue of the fact that oil is becoming scarcer, the market will automatically reward makers of more efficient vehicles, engines, and other processes that use petroleum. Eventually, even more expensive alternatives energy sources will become economically feasible to develop—and without artificial incentives!

Of course I am all for conservation of all our natural resources; I am particularly irritated by the thoughtless waste that is characteristic of American society. Particularly when it comes to petroleum, this waste is directly responsible for making us dependent on some of the most reprehensible governments in the world, simply because they have the majority of the worlds crude oil reserves. I say let’s tap the ANWR and other verboten reserves within our territory; there is no reason to let this perfectly good resource go to waste. Our current policy regarding these reserves are as if you were to go down to your wine cellar, (assuming you have such a thing) notice that racks are starting to look a little empty, and then swear off your finest, well-aged wines forever in favor of cheap domestic beer.
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