DEAD MEN'S SHOES ON TRANSYLVANIA AVENUE.
Dr De Ath. 7th March 2005.
Last Hurrah For The Robber Barons?
"Government of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation.", Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. President, commenting on the American administration in 1876, during the period associated with the Robber Barons, when legislation was bartered. Where exactly do we think we are headed at a time when, in 2003, the figure for the number of new oilfields discovered fell to zero for the first time, with the invasion of the Middle East, the Kyoto Protocol burning in the flames and societal divisions going into meltdown, all in the name of a ravenous economic system? No number of men in tights from Gotham is going to be able to cope with this if it goes down to the wire. In the event, with the consumption of the energy supply now outstripping availability, like a smack addict whose habit has spiraled out of control at the same time as the poppy harvest failure, the nights may be about to become darker. Power cuts, manufactured or otherwise, are likely to be on the cards and how long will it be before we find rationing at the pumps being introduced, not to mention the effects on ancillary industries such as plastics, et cetera? Within the system itself are "the seeds of its own destruction." (Karl Marx). Do not imagine for one moment that 'Blair's Petroleum' is going to get us out of the mire; our economic system positively encourages precisely the operations of companies like B.P. to dig us even more deeply into it. Unless of course they are holding a little surprise up their sleeves in the form of the patents for renewable energy technology that the petroleum, power and utility corporations have come into the possession of over the years. The sole objective visible through Capitalism's monocle is profit, buy low (or better still, steal) and sell high. Excluding the issue of cartels, market competition constrains control for the Capitalist at the sale end of the sequence, it is at the purchase end however, where our friend's talents are given a far freer rein. Control over Capital outgoings can be considerable. If enough 'red tape' has not been cut, and cut at a speed sufficient to suit our great captains of industry, if hard won rights are not being eroded quicker than the exponential increase in the beast's hunger to satisfy the inherent 'eat or be eaten' predatory instinct towards monopolistic power, then, simply relocate. Go somewhere more Victorian workhousey, go somewhere that has a more 'realistic' approach to dealing with unions, labour laws and welfare states. Thus, the manufacture of Dyson vacuum cleaners is, in the current argot, 'outsourced' from the U.K. to the Far East, the once upon a time manufacturing worker then gets a job in a call centre until that in turn is outsourced to Bombay. Meanwhile, our friend still remains firmly within the cosseting financial structures constructed "of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation". So long as we stand on foundations supported by one of the lowest common denominators in the human psyche, greed and the rights of the diminishing few to claim ever more wealth even more cheaply from the increasing many, we should not be too surprised when the four horses drag us kicking and screaming over the edge to rest amongst the dinosaur bones. It is a strange animal indeed that has more concern for profits to be made out of privatising the water supply in Africa than addressing the pestilence and malnutrition ravaging her. Capitalism needs a large, defenceless and relatively impoverished workforce in order to profit, and if it can add to that forcible commandeering of the energy supply it is quids in. Maybe.
Given that we are currently consuming oil at a rate something in the region of six barrels to every one that we have discovered, how soon will it be before many more oil companies are going to be found out massaging reserve estimates a la Shell? Oil moghuls invest in and profit from oil, not as yet from alternative sources of energy, no matter how greenly they may wash themselves with the pretence of being 'Beyond Petroleum'. The principle concern of oil and utility corporations is to grind down extraction costs as much as possible and sell as extortionately as possible, and clearly nothing, whether moral or legal, is going to stand in their way. Without addressing the suggestions of murder and clandestine activities carried out in an effort to maintain radio silence on the effectiveness of renewable sources of energy put forward by those of the conspiracy theory persuasion, it is worth considering the conduct of the energy lobby towards such sources during the last forty odd years. In order to guarantee society's dependence on themselves as lynchpin of the world's economy, these operations have, for decades, been eliminating competition from research and development in the field of renewables by buying up patents for any such technology that may pose a threat to their own power. If, as is so frequently claimed by the great and the good, renewable sources of energy could not meet our needs, why then should these all-seeing high priests of skinflintery buy such seemingly worthless patents? There has been a multitude of academic papers, going back as far as the 1960s, outlining not only the environmental implications of our addiction to the black gold but also emphasising the potential benefits, both environmental and economic, from serious investment in wind, wave, tidal, solar, hydrogen and hydro et cetera. Such sources, post R.and D. manufacturing and maintenance costs, ought eventually to render energy supplies for peanuts in comparison with what is paid in money and lives for our current oil-based foundations. Given the parlous lack of investment in R.and D. that these technologies have received when compared with the amounts spent simply on the marketing and rebranding of oil, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the patents have been buried until such time as the petroleum and utility corporations have squeezed the last drop of profit from the wells. They clearly have little incentive to invest in, develop or market alternatives to oil until they have to, particularly when this megalithic lobby group has legislators worldwide in its back pocket. Implicit also in these actions is that once the fields have been pumped dry and alternatives have to be offered as a substitute, the moghuls will be in an ideal situation to create sufficient fear in the marketplace over energy shortages that they will be perfectly placed to create a pricing regime for the sale of renewables commensurate with their own designs. In addition, they will finally be able to paint over their past and present themselves as the environmentally acceptable alternative to……., yes folks, themselves! We will then have manufactured circumstances where wind and hydrogen et cetera will almost certainly end up costing the consumer more than the oil we currently depend on. Ignoring all the eye-wash devised by the likes of Blair for public consumption, the invasion of Iraq, and all the attendant questions of legitimacy that it raises, goes much deeper than our apparently new found concern for the people of the Middle East and worries over whether tin pot dictators possess weapons technology that we gave them in the first instance or even the arrogance of power simply doing what it feels like because it can get away with it. The lift goes right to the basement of our psyche. Forget perpetual motion, cheap and limitless energy supplies, what really matters is the heroic quest for the free lunch. Perhaps ultimately, protocols like Kyoto will not actually matter too much after all once the oil is gone. By then, we will find ourselves inundated with technology that we should have developed years ago. Perhaps though, we could revisit coal or rubbing sticks together before then. Should we be worried? Who knows? Keep an eye on the gold market, as some suits evidently are.
The notion of utilising coal as a substitute for oil, once the vampires have sated themselves on the Middle East and Central Asia, may not actually be so far-fetched as it seems; particularly if one takes into account the fact that it is possible to process it in order to produce oil and gas, global stocks are probably healthy enough to make it worthwhile, our friends are likely to see more opportunity to realise far greater potential for profits accruing from it than they are from hilltop propeller farms and, last but not least, the U.S.A. is sitting on the world's largest known reserves. So, the end of oil might not necessarily herald sunrise for renewables, and what is more, we will still be able to continue defaecating in our living-room!
Profit, as ever, is the bottom line. When it comes to fossil versus renewable sources of driving the economy, our Capitalist friend never tires of trotting out the same old lame and hackneyed excuses to detract from this: "renewables cannot be stored", "renewables are unpredictable", or so the story goes. How unpredictable precisely? Are we suggesting that the motions of the heavenly bodies within or solar system are so erratic that we cannot depend on using their gravitational fields to catapult space probes on their journeys years after launch? Are we saying that the behaviour of the sun and the moon render tidal ebb and flow redundant as an energy source? How exactly does the Capitalist explain tidal tables, calendars and agricultural regimes? So much for unpredictability then. Such arguments are a barefaced con. In the context of storage, anyone who has visited a hydro-electric plant knows that it generates at peak periods and draws upon off-peak supplies to pump water back up to the reservoir; the store. Another way of looking at this is to see the planet itself as the store. Renewables are based on going with the flow of nature by taking advantage of the planet's behaviour in the form of local weather conditions and geology. So long, therefore, as we stand upon rocks and are surrounded by our varieties of climate, there is potential. In addition to this, developments in the field of conductors ought to provide for power transmission over far greater distances with significantly reduced loss than is presently the case, thus allowing surplus capacity in one region to cover for deficiencies in another. The lie concerning storage is most glaring however when one considers hydrogen. Hydrogen, at an estimated 90% and 75%, is the most abundant element both in the universe and on the planet respectively. Carbon-based fossil fuels are not only finite but release toxic gases, carcinogens, volatile organic chemicals and fine particulates into the atmosphere, all of which are detrimental to health and the environment. Molecular hydrogen (H2), on the other hand, produces zero emissions when used in fuel cells and if utilised in conjunction with the internal combustion engine (I.C.E.), apart from the discharge of burnt lubricant, the most damaging exhaust is water. Yes, water! Additionally, it is calculated that H2 would do, at most, around a quarter to a fifth of the damage to the environment that petroleum products do, via the greenhouse effect, when used in association with I.C.Es. The production of H2 can result from a simple process of electrolysis and, even more efficiently, from employing natural gas reformers. It can be derived from a wide range of sources, from fossil fuels through to biomass and water. With sufficient will and investment, the costs involved in producing sufficient levels of H2 to meet our needs could easily outstrip those currently required to slake our thirst for petroleum and considerably inhibit environmental pollution, not to mention the effect upon global political abuses. A physical comparison of H2 and gasoline also throws up one or two thought provoking facts. For any given volume, gasoline weighs 10 times more than liquid H2, so, gasoline is more dense and therefore, takes up less space. Weight however, can sometimes be a greater drawback than volume and vice versa. The advantage of H2 as an energy source becomes immediately apparent when comparing energy and mass. Liquid H2 (taken at a normal boiling point of one atmosphere) contains roughly 3 times more energy per unit mass than that possessed by gasoline. In practical terms then, this means that to contain the equivalent energy, an H2 tank would need to be approximately 4 times larger than that required for gasoline. However, developments in tank technology and, more importantly, the use of H2 fuel cells for vehicular application render H2 to a highly competitive status in the energy game. The auto-ignition temperatures are 585oC for H2 and from 230 to 480oC for gasoline, this entertains interesting comparisons in terms of stability. H2 also does not pool like gasoline, and its burn speed is roughly 9 times greater; if an H2 tank ruptures, the contents will either dissipate immediately into the atmosphere or, should the H2 ignite, it will consume itself with extreme rapidity. Remember the Hindenburg ? Research conducted by N.A.S.A. concurs with the views of electrical engineer Otto Bayersdorff, expressed in June 1937: "The actual cause of the fire was the extreme flammability of the covering material brought about by discharges of an electrostatic nature.", most likely a ground to air coronal discharge caused by static travelling along the landing lines, thus creating a massive fire due to the content of the dope on its skin, whose constituents were not entirely dissimilar to modern rocket fuel! Yes, the H2 did ignite but it was not the cause. In addition, the role of H2 as a cause for the fatalities is even questionable, most, it seems, died due to jumping and the others from diesel burns (the H2 burned off very rapidly) and the burning canopy. Those who remained in the cabin survived. In the context of the argument for the safety of H2 as a fuel, imagine if the H2 had had the burn speed of gasoline! Finally, in terms of its properties, because H2 does not pool, it cannot produce environmentally devastating slicks. The history of our relationship with this most common of elements is also worth a glance. Following the pioneering work of Cavendish and Lavoisier in the 18th century, J.B.S.Haldane proposed the derivation of H2 as a fuel by utilising wind power just after the First World War. And, during the Second World War, Rudolf Erren modified I.C.Es for H2 in a variety of vehicles, including submarines. Since then, N.A.S.A. has found applications for it both as a liquid propellant and in fuel cells to provide electricity. This of course begs the question as to why N.A.S.A., an organisation that can afford to shell out for the very best in everything, should opt for such an apparently common and potentially inexpensive energy source if they did not consider it to be superior to anything else available. In 1970, General Motors were talking in terms of a "hydrogen economy". And in 2003, it was still on their agenda: "Our long term vision is of a hydrogen economy.", Robert Purcell, Executive Director of General Motors Advanced Technology Vehicles (address to the annual meeting of the National Petrochemical and Refiners' Association). The Soviets conducted successful tests with H2 powered aero gas turbine engines on a customised Tupolev 154 in 1988. Additionally, all the major automobile manufacturers (Daimler-Benz, General Motors, Mazda, B.M.W. et cetera) have run similarly successful tests with I.C.Es and, much more significantly, with H2 fuel cell technology for road applications. Any lingering doubters, on issues of the viability and storage of renewable energy sources, should perhaps question why it is that H2, and renewables in general, are being advanced by the U.S. Army as a substitute for petroleum-based fuels for their 'Army After Next' platforms, both in its periodical 'Army Logistician' (January-February 1999 edition) and by staff at the School of Logistics, Army Logistics Management College, Fort Lee, Virginia, U.S.A.. Nevertheless, the great American public and their army will have to wait until the voice of the oil companies and the ex-executives that they have placed in power has waned. The army of course wishes to pull out of the volatile oil regions of Asia, whilst completely ignoring the fact that it is precisely Capitalism's own insatiable dependency on petroleum that has led to the instability in the first instance! The production costs involved in transferring gasoline to the point of sale are truly immense. A production rig alone can involve a capital outlay of up to £1Bn simply to construct, field exploration may hit £0.5Bn, and all of this excludes the manufacturing costs for exploration rigs, onshore facilities, refining and transport. Theft and securing on-message legislators in oil rich countries (with handsomely lubricated numbered bank accounts), however, raise profit margins dramatically. Furthermore, the relaxed attitude towards the future of our energy foundation, as expressed by éminence grise Lord Browne, Group C.E. of B.P., does little to encourage optimism in terms of hopes for inhibiting climate change in the short or medium term. Clearly, such major oil concerns intend to be at the forefront when H2 and other renewables become unavoidably attractive; "We are also developing the use of hydrogen as the ultimate clean source of fuel for vehicles…….we aim to have one of the world's first hydrogen retail stations.", Lord Browne (speech at Stanford University 6th June 2001). This however should be viewed in the context of his confident projections for the outlook of oil (in a speech at the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto on the 10th December 2004) on the grounds that current estimates should provide for another "forty years of oil and sixty years of gas" supplies. Lord Browne also acknowledges that we can doubtless expect the planetary temperature to rise by some two degrees Celsius as a result of our oil-based activities; the consequences of this are obviously of little concern when put in the balance against the potential profits such firms may accrue over the next forty to sixty years. Let us not forget that conversion to a renewable future will not undo the damage we have already wreaked and continue to wreak upon our natural surroundings. The combination of investment by the oil lobby in election campaigns to ensure pliant governments worldwide together with treasury resources to suppress objectors to this fossil-fired regime, via disinformation, the military or otherwise, is leading to parlous underinvestment in renewable energy programmes, mass ignorance, approaching terminal levels of environmental pollution, repression, death and destruction simply to maintain the bank balances of a minority interest group whose only motive is self-serving profit. It is absolutely imperative that the power of this lobby and its political lackeys be smashed. Along with all the environmental possibilities offered by H2, it also opens up vistas of a society that should no longer feel driven to trampling over the lives and sensibilities of those who have what it has not. Added to which, due to its ubiquity and ease of processing, H2 could well provide opportunities for decentralising the current structures of energy delivery to the consumer and creating a more local foundation for fuel production and distribution by placing production much closer to the user, even perhaps into the very hands of the users themselves. Indeed, possibilities exist on such a front for the location of onsite H2 reformer plants at the workplace and within public buildings et cetera, as well as utilising existing 'filling station' networks. This of course would clearly be anathema to the high priests of monopolistic Capitalism.
Hydrogen, coined by Cavendish and derived from the Greek for water (hydor) and to generate (gennaein), is both the most common and uncomplicated element in the universe. It occupies pole position on the periodic table of elements, has 1 electron, 1 proton and no neutrons. With an atomic number of 1 and an atomic mass of 1, perhaps God is trying to tell us something. It appears that science is not letting down mankind, the inverse in fact seems far closer to the truth. Mankind may be well advised to take a good hard look in the mirror.
Appendix: Hydrogen vs. Gasoline properties
*This percentage range applies to fossil fuels in general not gasoline alone