More Reasons for Energy Independence

Our addiction to oil funds authoritarian governments, who fund terrorists. When these two forces, authoritarian governments and terrorists, gain economic power from the increasing price of oil, political freedom around the globe declines.

We are spending trillions to fight terrorists in Iraq. These expenditures have done nothing to ease our addiction to oil or increase our energy independence. Our leaders insist that the American lifestyle is not negotiable, but it appears that the oil producing countries have more power over the American lifestyle than our elected leaders. I wish it wasn’t so.

Below are some excerpts from an article on these issues in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman. It is not good news.

Link: The Democratic Recession – New York Times.

The term “democratic recession” was coined by Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, in his new book “The Spirit of Democracy.” Freedom House, which tracks democratic trends and elections around the globe, noted that 2007 was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the cold war. Almost four times as many states — 38 — declined in their freedom scores as improved — 10.

As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.

“There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” explains Diamond. “Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria are the poster children” for this trend, where leaders grab the oil tap to ensconce themselves in power.

But while oil is critical in blunting the democratic wave, it is not the only factor. The decline of U.S. influence and moral authority has also taken a toll. The Bush democracy-building effort in Iraq has been so botched, both by us and Iraqis, that America’s ability and willingness to promote democracy elsewhere has been damaged. The torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay also have not helped. “There has been an enormous squandering of American soft power, and hard power, in recent years,” said Diamond, who worked in Iraq as a democracy specialist.

The bad guys know it and are taking advantage.

But we also need to do everything possible to develop alternatives to oil to weaken the petro-dictators. That’s another reason the John McCain-Hillary Clinton proposal to lift the federal gasoline tax for the summer — so Americans can drive more and keep the price of gasoline up — is not a harmless little giveaway. It’s not the end of civilization, either.

It’s just another little nail in the coffin of democracy around the world.

Nuclear Power Is Clean Energy?

Rebecca Solnit at Orion magazine describes some problems with nuclear energy that you won’t hear on TV.

Link: Nuclear Power the Solution to Climate Change? | Rebecca Solnit | Orion magazine.

…when it comes to the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them—big disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.

If these facts haven’t dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try telling him or her that most mined uranium—about 99.28 percent—is fairly low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To make nuclear fuel, the ore must be “enriched,” an energy-intensive process that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants were operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. What’s left over is a huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, which the U.S. government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when it uses the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our second.

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to lots and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into the ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was shut down because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric acid—some tens of thousands of gallons—was discovered. It contained enough plutonium to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader, this has always been one of the prime problems of nuclear energy: the same general processes that produce fuel for power can produce it for bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or Iran. The waste from nuclear plants is now the subject of much fretting about terrorists obtaining it for dirty bombs—and with a few hundred thousand tons of high-level waste in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot more low-level waste in the U.S. alone, there’s plenty to go around.

Bottom line:

…every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don’t know what to do with—because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever.

via Dave Pollard

Energy: Paying Now or Paying Later

Sara Robinson at Orcinus on There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL):

Years ago, bars used to offer a "free lunch" as a way to draw customers. Of course, the drinks in those bars cost twice as much, so the lunches weren’t really "free" at all. Similarly, in complex systems, what looks like the cheapest solution to a problem often turns out to be the most expensive one in the long run. TANSTAAFL is a way of saying, "Don’t expect something for nothing — there’s always a hidden cost somewhere."

Fossil fuels have been a big free lunch, until we found out that there was no "away" with those, either. And now we’re going to get to spend the next 50 years trying to pay for that long lunch. There are a couple lunches that look considerably cheaper right now — biofuels and nukes among them — but anybody who thinks those are going to be free is kidding themselves, too.

Jim Jubak at MSN Money (U.S. economy’s fate in Saudi hands – MSN Money) describes the Saudi stranglehold on the U.S.:

I have bad news for anybody who thinks that this Saudi control over the U.S. and global economies is a brief phase that will end by itself. The decision among oil producers such as Saudi Arabia to shift away from being a mere producer of crude oil to becoming a producer of value-added products made from oil — such as gasoline, fertilizer and plastics — will prolong the economic clout of these countries. Saudi Arabia will go from being the low-cost swing producer of crude oil to being the low-cost dominant producer in gasoline, fertilizer and plastics.

The only thing that changes this game — that redresses the balance between supplier economies and consumer economies — is a change in the price signals that consumer economies send in response to price increases. As long as the response to an increase in the price of oil is an increase in consumption, then oil prices will drift higher at a pace set by the self-interest of oil producers. Those of us who live in the consuming economies will just have to hope that the Saudis and other oil producers efficiently milk consuming countries’ cash-cow economies.

On the other hand, if higher prices lead to less consumption because consumers become permanently more efficient in the ways they use energy, and because consuming economies adopt lasting sources of alternative supply (and don’t abandon them at the next dip in oil prices), then consuming countries have a chance to take back some degree of control over their own economies.

Do we really need alternative sources of energy?

Do we really need to cut back on energy consumption?

Winning the War on Terror

Tom Evslin at Fractals of Change offers six steps to victory for Winning the War on Terror. These ideas are probably too reasonable to be supported in Washington, where strategy is too often based on cliches and under-the-table profiteering.

Link: Fractals of Change: Winning the War on Terror.

Start a dramatic program to reduce US dependence on foreign oil (and establish US leadership in alternatives). 

Way too much oil money ends up directly supporting terrorists or running schools for future terrorists or supporting absurd monarchies in countries which spawn terrorists. 

End the war on drugs. 

We aren’t going to “win” this one.  Attempts to keep drugs illegal just drive up drug prices and profits for the drug trade.  Terrorists and drug cartels are natural allies.

Partition and leave Iraq.
Time’s up.  I’m still not at all sorry Saddam was toppled.  I still remember that he did not allow the UN inspections required to assure that he did not have WMD.  That was his mistake and not ours.  But creating a democracy in Iraq is a job for Iraqis. 

Take effective action to topple the regime in North Korea.
The most dangerous illusion in the world is that joining the nuclear club puts a country beyond restraint. 

Depolarize our domestic debate on civil liberties.
This debate is much too important for the name-calling it’s degenerated into.

Rename the war on terror.
…much of the world is at war, with Islamic fascists. In fact, no one suffers from radical Islam more than Moslems.  There is no point in being politically correct and not recognizing our enemy. 

Americans Understand: Oil Money Funds Terrorism

Thomas Friedman, in an opinion column in The New York Times on Oct 13, 2006 entitled The Energy Mandate, cited an Aug. 27 survey of likely voters that asked the following question:

“Which of the following would you say should be the two most important national security priorities for the administration and Congress over the next few years?”

Here are the results:

42 percent – reducing dependence on foreign oil

26 percent – combating terrorism

25 percent – the war in Iraq

21 percent – securing our ports, nuclear plants and chemical factories

21 percent – addressing dangerous countries like Iran and North Korea

12 percent – strengthening America’s military

Does this suggest that the American public understands that as long as we continue to spend billions of dollars on oil in terror-supporting countires like Saudi Arabia (the origin of most of the 9/11 hijackers), Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela, well-funded terrorists can continue their destruction of peaceful societies?

The Value of Privacy

Bruce Schneier, security expert, describes the dangers of government surveillance of citizens. I understand why public places like airports and traffic intersections should be recorded on video. But somewhere between public places and private residences is a line that should not be crossed. Private information can be mis-used to manipulate and persecute. (There are some laws in here in Georgia….)

Link: Schneier on Security: The Value of Privacy

Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time.

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.

A future in which privacy would face constant assault was so alien to the framers of the Constitution that it never occurred to them to call out privacy as an explicit right. Privacy was inherent to the nobility of their being and their cause. Of course being watched in your own home was unreasonable. Watching at all was an act so unseemly as to be inconceivable among gentlemen in their day. You watched convicted criminals, not free citizens. You ruled your own home. It’s intrinsic to the concept of liberty.

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

The Silver Lining… to high energy prices

dark cloud

Every dark cloud has a silver lining.

The Silver Lining… to high energy prices

We must face our addiction to cheap oil.

We can invest in alternative sources of energy.

We can reduce the funding of terrorists.

We can justify more fuel-efficient transportation.

We can invest in sustainable energy.

We can invest in clean energy.

We can become less dependent on unstable governments.

Please put any suggestions for additions to this list in the comments below. Thanks!

Thomas Friedman on Oil and Democracy

Thomas Friedman describes why the US-led efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East are having unintended consequences. Excerpts below.

Source: New York Times, Addicted to Oil, by Thomas L. Friedman, February 1, 2006

So far the democracy wave the Bush team has helped to unleash in the Arab-Muslim world since Sept. 11 has brought to power hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Palestine and Iran, and paved the way for a record showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The Bush team’s fault was believing that it could change that — that it could break the Middle East’s addiction to authoritarianism without also breaking America’s addiction to oil. That’s the illusion here. In the Arab world, oil and authoritarianism are inextricably linked.

You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini — without going through a phase of mosque-led politics.

Why? Because once you sweep away the dictator or king at the top of any Middle East state, you go into free fall until you hit the mosque — as the U.S. discovered in Iraq.

The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place the government’s iron fist could not fully penetrate. As such, it became a place where people were able to associate freely, incubate local leaders and generate a shared opposition ideology.

That is why the minute any of these Arab countries hold free and fair elections, the Islamists burst ahead.

Why are there not more independent, secular, progressive opposition parties running in these places? Because the Arab leaders won’t allow them to sprout.

It is not this way everywhere. In East Asia, when the military regimes in countries like Taiwan and South Korea broke up, these countries quickly moved toward civilian democracies. Why? Because they had vibrant free markets, with independent economic centers of power, and no oil.

In the Arab-Muslim world, however, the mullah dictators in Iran and the secular dictators elsewhere have been able to sustain themselves in power much longer, without ever empowering their people, without ever allowing progressive parties to emerge, because they had oil or its equivalent — massive foreign aid. Only when oil is back down to $20 a barrel will the transition from Saddam to Jefferson not get stuck in "Khomeini Land."

If you just remove the dictators, and don’t also bring down the price of oil, you end up with Iran — with mullah dictators replacing military dictators and using the same oil wealth to keep their people quiet and themselves in power.

In the Middle East, oil and democracy do not mix. It’s not an accident that the Arab world’s first and only true democracy — Lebanon — never had a drop of oil.

Thomas Friedman on Green Cars, Energy, and Terrorism

Thomas Friedman challenges the Bush administration to address several current problems with vision. Excerpts below.

Source: The New York Times

we are in the midst of an energy crisis – but this is not your grandfather’s energy crisis. No, this is something so much bigger, for four reasons.

First, we are in a war against a radical, violent stream of Islam that is fueled and funded by our own energy purchases. We are financing both sides in the war on terrorism: the U.S. Army with our tax dollars, and Islamist charities, madrasas and terrorist organizations through our oil purchases.

Second, the world has gotten flat, and three billion new players from India, China and the former Soviet Union just walked onto the field with their version of the American dream: a house, a car, a toaster and a refrigerator. If we don’t quickly move to renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, we will warm up, smoke up and choke up this planet far faster than at any time in the history of the world. Katrina will look like a day at the beach.

Third, because of the above, green energy-saving technologies and designs – for cars, planes, homes, appliances or office buildings – will be one of the biggest industries of the 21st century. Tell your kids. China is already rushing down this path because it can’t breathe and can’t grow if it doesn’t reduce its energy consumption. Will we dominate the green industry, or will we all be driving cars from China, Japan and Europe?

Finally, if we continue to depend on oil, we are going to undermine the whole democratic trend that was unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because oil will remain at $60 a barrel and will fuel the worst regimes in the world – like Iran – to do the worst things for the world. Indeed, this $60-a-barrel boom in the hands of criminal regimes, and just plain criminals, will, if sustained, pose a bigger threat to democracies than communism or Islamism. It will be a black tide that turns back the democratic wave everywhere, including in Iraq.

…George Bush may think he is preserving the American way of life by rejecting a gasoline tax. But if he does not act now – starting with his State of the Union speech – he will be seen as the man who presided over the decline of our way of life. He will be the American president who ignored the Sputniks of our day.

The American Way of Life

Can we continue to live like we have in the past? Jim Kunstler says…

      Many things have changed. One is that a potent segment of the Islamic world declared war on the west (jihad). Another is that OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, has apparently lost its spare capacity, and therefore its role as the world’s swing producer of oil. Another is that the North Sea and Alaskan oil fields have passed their production peaks and are depleting at phenomenal rates — in the case of Great Britain’s fields, up to 50 percent a year — because they were drilled so efficiently with the latest technology. Yet Another is that rising ocean temperatures have led to several years of massive hurricanes wreaking havoc among the oil and gas platforms of the US Gulf Coast. Still another is the industrial turbo-expansion of China and India, taking advantage of their ultracheap labor to become the world’s factories and back-offices, while jacking up their oil consumption.

      Oil trade has now become a dead heat race between supply and demand, with demand looking like the stronger horse coming into the home stretch. As it overtakes supply, even more strange changes will unfold on the world scene. These are likely to take the form of fierce geopolitical struggles to gain favor in or control those regions that still have a lot of oil, foremost the Middle East, with Iraq located at dead center of it.

     There is really only one condition that will allow us to pull out of Iraq. That is if we make an enormous collective effort to change our behavior here in North America; if we break free from an economy pegged to suburban sprawl, reform the way we do agriculture and retail trade, make substantial investments in public transit and railroads in particular, and practice fiscal restraint at every scale, including an end to the reckless creation of mortgages. Unless we face these facts and the tasks associated with them, then we will find ourselves at the center of that geopolitical struggle.

     Right now, nobody from any political stance is talking about these facts and these tasks.