So I went to a parade the other day. I was curious to re-experience the phenomenon since it had been quite some time. The last time I saw a parade was from within as a member of the high school’s marching band playing my trombone.
Yeah, it’s really been that long. I avoid public events religiously. I recently lived ten years in a small town. During that time I successfully avoided all the parades, county fairs, classic car shows and even the yearly carnivals festively known to the locals as “dirt bowls.” I’m a hardcore avoider and parade dodger.
The parade started with the police and fire departments showing off their rides. Meh. I grudgingly gave them a pass since this is apparently the traditional way to start a parade. I fleetingly wondered how much it was costing me.
Then came some beauty queens riding in the back of convertibles. Meh. Mildy amoosing.
This was followed by the “citizen of the year” aka a person I don’t know in car.
At last, the grand marshal. A person in a car. I was starting to swoon from … too … much … excitement. Suddenly I realized I could have been back at home watching Star Trek: The Animated Series on Netflix.
Ah, Europe. A place where they eat cigarettes like Halloween candy going out of style yet worry about every little nit when it comes to their food.
“Oui! Next week I may hack up a cancerous thing that used to be a lung but today I will live, dammit, live! The juices of life must be savored to the fullest! The one thing we must absolutely never allow is diphenylamine in our food, you damn foolishly greedy capitalistic yanks.”
I, for one, say thanks. Because, without the European Food Safety Authority banning this, that and the other thing, I wouldn’t be able to say things like: “Oh yeah? Well Kraft Macaroni & Cheese still contains two artificial dyes banned in Europe.” Chef Booyah la de Fuckin’ Dah!
Kraft Foods is an American food company that was owned by a tobacco company until recently when they jury rigged the corporate legalese by rebranding Philip Morris as Altria Inc. and allegedly, in 2007, successfully underwent a Siamese twins separation operation, at least theoretically on paper. That’s because Kraft wants you to know they care about what you put in your body. Kraft Kares ™.
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By now, most Americans have heard statistics like the United States is 5 percent of the world’s population but responsible for 25% of global energy consumption. So I was little surprised to learn that the U.S. is 7th in “energy consumption per capita” behind Canada and a number of small countries. Even so, the U.S. is still the world’s largest consumer of energy.
Where does our energy come from? Approx. 40% from petroleum, 23% from coal, 23% from natural gas, 8.4% from nuclear power, and 7.3% from renewable, which includes mainly hydroelectric dams but also wind power, geothermal and solar.
Energy always seems to come with a price. It’s like a wish that comes true but carries a curse. Petroleum pollutes our atmosphere and cities. Coal mining is dangerous and also causes pollution. Natural gas is advertised as “cleaner” but it still adds to global carbon emissions. Nuclear power is high risk and produces toxic waste products. Even hydroelectric power has its problems like ecosystem damage, other environmental effects and risk. (They can fail.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about energy recently due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the hubris of us humans.
Japan is a country located in the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” which is an area where large numbers of volcanic activity and earthquakes occur in the basin of the Pacific Ocean. Japan, in particular, is situated on the meeting point of two major tectonic plates. The Pacific Plate is moving westward against the younger and less dense Philippines Plate. Over time the Pacific Plate is pushing under the Philippines Plate. As we all know, the activity between tectonic plates is occasionally experienced by humans in the form of earthquakes.
Einstein said famously that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In our history we have accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Yet we still tell ourselves, “Yes, we can do this. We know what we’re doing.” We’re really good at failing to learn the lessons of history.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we think of those incidents as “accidents.” Perhaps our mindsets would be slightly different if we thought of them as “inevitables.”
I like to think of it like this. Imagine that the nuclear power industry is a home you want to build. But the only land you can afford is in a 100-year flood plain. Wikipedia says, “a 100-year flood has approximately a 63.4% chance of occurring in any 100-year period.” It could happen the year after you build your dream home. Or in a hundred years. Or in two hundred years or longer. The point being, it’s a random probability.
You took that land, of course, because, all other factors being equal, it was cheaper than land that wasn’t in a flood plain. In other words, you accepted the risk. We humans seem to lack the ability to effectively gauge or even imagine what isn’t right in front of our faces. If the dream home is built and then gets washed away next year, guess who will be crying crocodile tears about it? Too bad, so sad. Talk to the hand!
The nuclear power industry is a home built on a 100-year flood plain.
Worse, the nuclear reactors built in Japan were supposed to be the best of the best. They were supposedly engineered and constructed to the highest earthquake and disaster standards in the world. It turns out, though, that they didn’t even represent the best we humans could do. Reports are now saying that the reactors needed “upgrades” and stuff.
In other words, they were only built to withstand, perhaps, 80 percent of what might conceivably happen. And that’s perfectly analogous to a 100-year flood plain. So it’s no big surprise what happened. Most likely, it was inevitable.
And, I have a question. It might be a stupid one and expose that I know diddly squat about this entire topic. I’m willing to risk that ridicule because I want to know. Nuclear reactors contain fuel and water is used to control the heat, etc. So my question is this: After the earthquake, were the reactors still in operation? Was the fuel still in there doing its fuel type of stuff? So water and power were still needed to manage coolant to control the process?
Were the reactors shut down and the nuclear fuel completely removed as a safety precaution right after the earthquake so there would be absolutely no possibility of the reactors going out of control and overheating?
Were these types of tough decisions authorized to be made by personnel actually on site at the reactors? Or did “shut down” decisions have to come from elsewhere, which might have been a bit difficult and complicated right after a big earthquake? Were there procedures for shutdown and proactively be safe? You know, just in case something like a tsunami might follow? (It’s been known to happen.)
I have absolutely no idea. But I can imagine it would have been a big decision. Should we turn off the grid and affect millions of people? What if we’re wrong? How do we balance that against an unknown “if” that may or may not happen?
I’d be very curious to know.
This post is too long. I’ll probably have to continue it in a part 2. “To be continued.” Heh. Here are some final quickie thoughts.
Coal? I once saw a movie that claimed every time you flip on a light switch you blow up a mountain. I actually think about that when I turn on the lights.
Then I heard about the mayor of small town (pop. 200) in Texas that was surrounded by 18 natural gas wells. The company that profited from the wells assured the mayor that everything was safe. But the mayor’s kids had constant nose bleeds, and not just little dribbles. They were gushers. I heard him on The Story, a radio program on NPR. The mayor loved his town and fought the good fight, but eventually choose to move out of town to protect the health of his family. That was the right decision. The safety of his family had to come first. Along the way he fought the company and got little help from the state of Texas.
When it comes to energy, all I hear about is how we need, more, more, and more. Projections for energy use in the U.S. in the future show that demand will be going up. But what if less was more? What if the most powerful weapon we ever had (conservation) was already within our grasp? What if we figured out new ways to get by with less? Of course, we live in a culture where fuel economy in vehicles has barely moved a blip since the time the combustion engine was invented. This sort of approach seems to be of little interest to us.
We need energy. We crave energy. We demand energy. Our very lives and almost everything single thing we do depends on energy. But at the same time, energy production is one of the most destructive things that we humans can ever do.
How will we ever reconcile this? Is it even possible?
In part two I’ll try to answer the big question, “What if we found a limitless and perfectly safe form of energy?”
This is my “E” post for the April 2011 “A to Z Blogging Challenge.”
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Hurricane Katrina was a natural phenomenon albeit with some difficulties that were exacerbated by man-made contributing factors, like designing and building a major city that is protected by levees and flood walls. “The Gulf oil spill” aka “the Deepwater Horizon oil spill” is solely a man-made phenomenon.
So Hurricane Katrina was a natural phenomenon and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a man-made one.
Here in Abyssia (my home nation) we have a simple law. It goes like this:
Private companies are not permitted to engage in any activity where the potential damages that might be caused exceeds the sum total of the company’s resources.
In other words, when the damage that might be done by a private enterprise is so extreme that it can’t be permitted to exist, then non-government operations must not be allowed to operate in that field. That is because when things go wrong, it is the government that will have to take care of the fix.
Why allow a private company to operate and make a profit when it doesn’t have the ability to be responsible for the damages it might cause? That just doesn’t make sense.
“Listen. We’re going to run a racket that will make us filthy rich. The downside is that if things go badly, we’ll be wiped out and we’ll take the whole planet, a country, or an entire ocean with us. We’ve thought it over. Hard. And golly gee. It turned out that we’re willing to take that risk. Even if it means we only get rich for a little while.”
What will the ultimate cost of the BP oil spill disaster be? And will it be BP or our government (aka you and me) that picks up the tab? What if the cost exceeds the total value of the BP Corporation? (The corporation had assets of about $236 billion in 2009.) Then what happens? In a case like that, even if BP wanted to do what was right (highly unlikely), it would lack the capacity to execute. It would be like pooping in one hand and wishing in the other – all you’d end up with would be a handful of poop.
The United States can sure cut off its nose to spite its face. You have something called the Oil Pollution Act that caps “environmental damages” at $75 million. How fucking ridiculous is that? Why not trying capping damages at, say, oh, I don’t know — the actual freakin’ amount?!?!?!?
“I’m so sorry I smashed your car, old chap. The government, though, acts as my body guard and caps my responsibility for all damages I cause at $75. Here’s a personal check. Don’t worry, it’s good. Sorry about the Rolls Royce and all that. Cheerio!”
Let’s compare the $75 million limit on environmental damages to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In that case the cleanup effort cost Exxon $2.5 billion and an additional $1.1 billion in various settlements. That’s out of pocket damages of about $3.6 billion to Exxon. It makes the $75 million cap seem pretty tiny, eh?
How much more expensive will it be in the gulf oil spill? Yeah, $75 million is going to go a long, long way, I’m sure.
What are “environmental damages” anyway, and how are they calculated?
Cost estimates of damage to the environment may be underestimated significantly by those charged with putting a price tag on ecological disasters. According to Daniel W. Bromley, a resource economist and former director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Environment Studies, the consequences from mishaps such as groundwater pollution and oil and chemical spills may be off by a factor of three to five, meaning estimates of perceived damage could be millions or tens of millions of dollars too low in a given situation. “Damages can be estimated in different ways. It all depends on what questions are asked” and what criteria are applied by the courts and policymakers. (Source.)
Oh? Policymakers get to determine the “criteria?” Cue the oil industry lobbyists and the “we’re too big to fail” whining and, of course, the “we’re so important to national security” blather. You know, you might have a point there but your touching concern for national security just doesn’t ring true when it is your wallet that hangs in the balance.
It is being reported that Obama now “strongly supports” raising the cap on environmental damages. Wow. How nice. Of course, that’s a move that can only come from Congress. Oops.
Why in the name of all that is holy would you deliberately go out of your way to set up a system that says a commercial enterprise can engage in an activity and cause damages with not end in sight yet at the same time cap the amount of damages for which they can be held accountable? Oh, that’s right. We don’t want government to be a “daddy” and regulate or otherwise hinder a “free market.” We just want it there to pick up the tab when the shit goes sideways. We wouldn’t want a company that large to fail, would we?
Some of Obama’s most vociferous critics are those that call him a “socialist” ad infinitum. So, if they don’t like “socalism” what do they like? A free market system. They typically oppose government regulations and interference in the world of business. They frequently complain about the “nanny state” and regulations and say that government should not be a “daddy” in our lives. The free market, they claim, will take care of itself. The free market is very self-correcting, they say. Sure, there may the occasional “problem” here and there but in the long term the free market will work those problems out on its own.
Too bad those free market corrections can be exponentially destructive. Sure the system usually works itself out but at what cost? Human lives, pain and suffering, lost retirements, lost homes, lost careers, etc. Don’t worry, your life was just destroyed but a little “correction.” I’m sure that makes you feel better.
So, how then, I ask, how will the “free market” rise to the unique challenge presented by the gulf oil spill? Where is the “profit” in being one hundred percent responsible and accountable for your mistakes? What if the cost of the fix simply cannot be covered by those responsible?
If a private enterprise can’t or won’t fix the damage it has caused, and if the consequences are too serious to the entire freakin’ planet, then it is that evil boogieman called “government” that has to ride in like John Wayne and save the day. Yee haw.
Suddenly it’s ok to say, “Fuck the free market. Looks like we need daddy government after all. We need daddy to clean up the mess we made. Oh, boo boo.” Sounds remarkably like a gerbil in my humble opinion. “I want all the good times but I don’t want to be responsible. Whaaaaaa!”
I guess we can always choose to do nothing, just sit back and allow corporations to continue to wreck our planet until there is nothing left to wreck. Some day the profits will run out, but what a wild ride it will be for the few who benefited along the way. I’m sure we can all adapt to breathing fire and replacing oxygen with oil. Perhaps some specialized genetically-installed oil-breathing gills from the BP research and development team will solve that problem? Hell, it might even be an improvement on the reality we currently have. “I want to breath oil and fire, I say!”
So, what do we know about the accident that led to the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and the worst man-made ecological disaster of all time?
Simple statistics tell us the odds of a Deepwater Horizon are about 100 percent. That’s because the event happened. So in this instance the chances are a certainty.
What we don’t know is how likely was this disaster? Was this a one-in-a-million freak confluence of events where everything that could go wrong did? Or was this accident not really an “accident” at all? Did BP go above and beyond to take all reasonable precautions to prevent a disaster like this? Were all the laws obey? Were proper safeguards devised and employed?
Somehow, based on what actually happened, I sincerely doubt it.
There are really two issues here. The first is the weak and watered-down regulations regarding off-shore oil drilling that government actually has on the books. As in the case of most laws, I’d wager these were probably written with the direct buy-in and/or control of industry and that, additionally, they are likely to be woefully unenforced, if at all. The second issue is the safety controls self-regulated by industry – what precautions they feel are prudent. No big surprise if these fall short, right?
The scuba industry regulated itself. It has worked very well for a long time. When it doesn’t work well, a single dumb ass human usually dies. When an oil rig suffers a catastrophic failure, the consequences are a wee bit higher, like, perhaps, the lose of an entire ocean. Maybe we shouldn’t trust self-regulation quite so much.
So the question remains: Were all the reasonable precautions taken in the case of the Deepwater Horizon? Government officials are now talking tough in the media that criminal charges will be brought if it is determined that laws were broken. Yeah, right. Perhaps they’ll find a scapegoat or two but the people really responsible will get a slap on the wrist (if anything at all) and will be allowed to go on raping the planet and their fellow man in the name of being wealthy beyond avarice.
Can the BP Deepwater oil spill be Obama’s Katrina? Some media reports run counter to this criticism. The Obama administration may have made some missteps but a comparison attempting to cast Obama’s response in the same vein as Bush to Katrina is not useful and may not even be accurate.
Secondly, one was a natural disaster and one was man-made. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Obama critics. You can’t say, “Keep daddy government out of free market and things like oil drilling. We need less regulations. Let the free market work. Oops. Oil rig went boom boom. We can’t fix. Please, government, come save our bacon.”
If enterprises like banks and oil companies can’t clean up their own messes and are “too big to fail” and are utterly destroying one of our planet’s oceans, then I submit they shouldn’t be allowed to engage in an enterprise where they can’t control and fix the outcomes they have produced.
Image Credit: U.S. Coast Guard