Regs not the problem for oil business


The incoming Trump administration and the oil and gas industry like to talk about the burdens of environmental red tape. But in Deloitte’s “reality check” of the top six issues facing the oil and gas industry in 2015, regulatory burden is absent. These are mostly big companies for whom compliance is a part of doing business and a manageable cost of operations. The entrepreneurs running wildcat operations aren’t strangers to this side of the ledger, either. And keep in mind that these companies, averaged over time (it’s a cyclical business, the world’s largest industry) make money hand over fist and can afford to do their part in minimizing the environmental impacts. For every Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, there are hundreds of projects that go forward unhindered.

Industry-bought statements by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute in the wake of the joint U.S.-Canadian protection of thousands of square miles of seas from offshore drilling that talk about the importance of these places for energy security – they’re a joke. Arctic offshore today accounts for about 0.025 percent of U.S. crude production. The Gulf of Mexico offshore produces 23 percent of all U.S. crude and basically all of the offshore production.

We won’t need it long-term, either. Electrification of the vehicle fleet will drive down domestic demand, meaning less oil will satisfy it over time, obviating the need to drill sensitive areas that threaten tourism and the environment (not even getting into global warming here).

Shell abandoned its drilling plans in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be catastrophic: imaging trying to clean up after a Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, but in 40 mph winds at minus-20, with no local fishing fleets or anyone else to help out (caribou being notoriously lazy). The industry would have to self-fund the entire cleanup infrastructure, even if they found a bonanza of oil, which Shell at least didn’t.

Exxon Mobil had a “rough” year in 2016, its net incoming falling by about half – still, it made $16 billion on $260 billion in sales. God knows what their regulatory costs were, showing up in various accounting buckets all over the world. But this company’s – and most oil companies’ – profits hinge not on the relatively minor costs of doing their part in keeping the planet more livable, but on the whims of global oil production and demand.

Brain Bar Budapest via blog posts

Brain Bar Budapest cover logo

An old friend of mine touched base a couple of months back, wondering if I’d like to do some writing for Brain Bar Budapest. My first question was: for Brain-what?

As freelancers tend to do, I said yes. They were looking for blog posts about the festival’s speakers – quick hits, mostly: some background, an interview, and (ideally) interesting copy.

I didn’t get to go to Brain Bar Budapest in early June, but they put on a great show, looks like. And I got to talk with (or email with), and then write a bit about, some fascinating and diverse people.

Among the posts included: writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel, on the essence and importance of glamour; the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan; Johns Hopkins University scientist Alex Szalay, whose work in big data (and astrophysics) is helping usher in the fourth paradigm of science; Gabriel Hallevy, a legal scholar on the potential dark side of the rise of robots; “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford; propaganda-and-science-fiction scholar Etienne Augé; Harvard machine learning PhD candidate Victoria Krakovna on the existential risk artificial intelligence may pose; Austrian ceramicist and humanity-archivist Martin Kunze; Malaysian-born entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh; and MinecraftEdu cofounder Santeri Koivisto, among others.





$15 an hour is $5 a day (inflation adjusted)

Henry Ford

No less a business giant than Henry Ford was for the $15 movement (inflation adjusted) Photo Courtesy PBS.

While I’m personally all for a $15 minimum wage (economic theory be damned), I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. But just now, I was chaining away, mentally speaking, and came upon an interesting comparison.

The initial trigger happened this morning. I had dropped off my younger daughter at school and swung by the local Albertson’s for vital purchases (bananas, strawberries, and Ovaltine, which has gone from a red-dominant (angry Ovaltine) to a blue-themed (tranquil Ovaltine) design) and noted on a window adjacent to the automatic doors a help-wanted sign, for cashiers (courtesy staff? some pleasant acronym). $9 an hour.

I have seen this sign before and had shuddered at it.

This evening, I was pondering my own questionable earning status when the sign re-boarded my drifting mind. I make more than $9 an hour, thank God.

And I thought: how does anybody get by on $9 an hour — that’s, what, $72 a day?

And then the idea of $5 a day struck me. I’m from Dearborn, Michigan, so things related to Ford have an odd sway.

$5 a day (I’m not following Associated Press style, here, for the record. Five dollars a day would be how you’d start a sentence in this case) is what Henry Ford, apparently unbidden, decided to pay even his least-skilled worker – the piston-counters, the engine-crankers, the coal-polishers, the tire taste-testers, all of them – five bucks a day, minimum.

Then I thought about the U.S. Department of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator and wonderered a) when it was that Henry Ford made that unbidden gesture and b) what $5 was worth, inflation-adjusted, back then.


This is unfortunately file art. I don't typically have such sums at my disposal.

This is unfortunately file art. I don’t typically have such sums at my disposal.

For a), a Google search of “Henry Ford $5 Day” yielded 1914; for b), the inflation calculator came back with $5 back then equating to $119.07 today.

Per an eight-hour day, that’s $14.88. Which is damn near $15.

And what I also learned, courtesy of The Henry Ford, (that incomparable, eclectic, museum/village in my hometown (I worked there in high school — a “Cart Guy” in period clothing, selling fruit/candy from a wooden deal like a Mormon might have shoved along his westward march)): Ford workers did nine-hour days back until that very moment, at which Henry also trimmed the workday to eight hours.

So no less a capitalist than Henry Ford was all for $15 an hour, too. #fightfor15 indeed.


AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.

What’s the use of math? – a JWST example

JWST LaGrange point map

The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit something called L2, discovered thanks to math in an era where only sheep (and a duck and a rooster) flew. (Courtesy NASA)

My 12-year-old daughter, as 12-year-old daughters do, asked me what’s the use of math. I wrote a book about space engineers. Their work is the manifestation of math. I have taken to answering with something along the lines of “math gives us the ability to model the universe and everything in it. And it keeps bridges from falling down on us.”

If we’re in a vehicle when she asks what the use of math is, I might add, “It keeps the wheels from falling off this car.” Recently, I did a story, yet unpublished, about a steel research center at the Colorado School of Mines. One of its co-founders mentioend offhand that there are 11 types of structural steel in nose of a car’s frame, all for a specific reason. He showed me this video of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air crashing head-on into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The difference in the wreckage, to no small degree, was math.

Yesterday, reading a bit about the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, I came upon a great pure-math example. It has to do with the JWST, not to be confused with SxSW.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor planned for launch in October 2018, will look farther into the universe’s history than Hubble or any other telescope. It will do more to figure out potentially habitable planets orbiting distant suns, too. It will do all sorts of other stuff to clarify the universe’s development and our place in it. It will cost about $9 billion. Ball Aerospace, the company I wrote about, did up the 18 gold-coated super-lightweight beryllium mirrors, which will unfold into a 21-foot primary mirror.

The JWST will rely on an infrared detector, which has to be kept super-cold. They had to find just the right spot for it in space. The mission designers chose the second Lagrange point (a.k.a. L2), about a million miles away – roughly four times the distance from Earth to the moon. They weren’t the first mission designers to have done this.

From the JWST web page about its future orbit (emphasis mine):

The L2 orbit is an elliptical orbit about the semi-stable second Lagrange point. It is one of the five solutions by the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in the 18th century to the three-body problem. Lagrange was searching for a stable configuration in which three bodies could orbit each other yet stay in the same position relative to each other. He found five such solutions, and they are called the five Lagrange points in honor of their discoverer.

Lagrange was a contemporary of the Montgolfier brothers. The outer limits of aerospace innovation in those days involved a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a hot air balloon. Lagrange wasn’t looking for applications, couldn’t have conceived of a space telescope. He was just doing math.