Peak Oil Happened Already, but also Not

Scientific American’s David Biello, a sharp observer of clean (and less-clean) energy, posted this piece on peak oil yesterday. The long and short of it is peak oil (the moment when we’ve collectively burned as much oil — about a trillion barrels — as is left in the ground) actually happened in 2005.

Peak oil is important because, the thinking goes, the specter of  future scarcity will drive up prices and generally gum up the oil-dependent world’s economic works.

The wrinkle is that the 2005 peak-oil depends on it being defined as (relatively) easy-to-extract oil, or maybe oil reserves as geologists would have recognized them in the 1970s. With unconventional reserves like Canadian tar sands, production has been able to keep pace with rising demand from places like China and India. The pace of consumption also will play a role in how peak oil plays out: the more utterly dependent, the worse the withdrawal, meaning an electrified, or semi-electrified, fleet will help matters. The article’s well worth a look.

False crisis turned real, Republican born and bred

When the 2012 presidential election season rolls around and the Republicans try to blame the Democrats for the Great American Credit Default (or near-default, if we’re lucky), remember:

  • The notion that the House bill, rejected by the Senate in a short two hours tonight (with six Republicans and both independents joining all democrats), was a good-faith effort in governance — is a joke. House Speaker John Boehner was asked to bring a main to the national potluck, showed up with a wheelbarrow full of horse manure (sprinkled with Tea Party batshit) and acted surprised when it didn’t pass the even the sniff test. And then he pens a ludicrous op-ed claiming victory like Napoleon on his return from Russia. The “arrogance” of Washington he decries is almost entirely manufactured by the intransigent loon teabag faction of his own party. We have a legislative branch entirely co-opted by the insane right — the sort of faction that would have three seats in the bleachers of a reasonable multiparty government.
  • The most insane part of the Boenhead bill, besides its obvious political motivation with the pre-2012 election deadline, is the nutty demand for a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. Come on out to Colorado, teabaggers, and see what rigid constitutional amendments to government purse strings get you. It’s called TABOR, perpetrated by a reporter-kicking, tax-evading Republican named Douglas Bruce, and it’s a disaster. Hell yes, we need to balance budgets, but it has to be done by human beings and in context, not mandated by mindless, rigid policy.
  • The cuts being thrown together now are going to hurt. Environmental and energy programs, programs to assist the poor, students –a trillion or so in discretionary spending, which is some 35 percent of the federal spending pie, but everything most of us associate with the federal government — the National Weather Service, the FBI, federal research labs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation (which pays for research that leads to innovative products), the State Department (yes, despite the media being ridiculously focused on the debt talks, the rest of the world continues to exist) and so on.
  • The Republican zeal to pare back government should be met with extreme skepticism by anyone who is not very wealthy. That’s because so much of government spending goes straight back to the people in the form of health care and retirement benefits. A helluva lot of the rest flows back to the private sector to build everything from battleships to spacecraft. The term “government” is a very slippery one indeed.
  • The Republicans are causing all this grief for one of two reasons, or some combination of the two. The first is a religious, ideological zeal against raising taxes, despite their boy Ronald Reagan having raised them 11 times. Because Reagan, while an idealogue, was also a pragmatist. Now, I don’t like paying taxes, either, but I do like living in a reasonably safe, civil society, and taxes are why we have that.
  • The second is a total disregard for the good of the many to preserve the interests of the few and well-heeled. The Republican party, as it exists in 2011, deserves the votes of the top 2 percent of earners, no question. Why the rest would be foolish enough to support them is a product of voters declining to engage their minds and superior electioneering/political skills of the American right.

Health care rationing is good

For a reminder of the big picture issue in health care, former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm’s Sunday opinion piece in the Denver Post is well worth a look. Lamm has been writing about this issue since the mid-1990s, and federal deficit and spiraling costs have moved events increasingly into his philosophical sights.

The piece argues that we already ration health care (“Your health insurance contract is a rationing document setting terms of coverage”), and that, given the conflicting directions of cost curves and budgetary reality, we have no choice but to face some very difficult decisions. Lamm reminds us that federal health care costs now exceed Social Security costs, and that Medicare and Medicaid tabs amount to more than triple the federal defense budget, with no signs of slowing.

For all the talk of resurgent family medicine, the creation of medical homes, and the use of electronic medical records to avoid redundancy/foolishness in care, the monumental cost of end-of-life care is an issue we can no longer skirt. Health care is ultimately a zero-sum game, with a finite basket of resources already inadequate to cover 51 million insured in this country. Whether by “death panel” or a simple refusal by insurers, public or private, to pour tens of thousands of dollars into services that extend a patient’s life for a month or two, change has to happen, and we should support it.

 

 

Space budgets in the news

Why do space missions go over budget? John Kelly of Florida Today did a solid summary of some of the key issues in his Saturday column, based, it looks like, on a Government Accountability Office report on the same topic. The key points are similar to those I made here based on my experience writing a book about three over-budget missions across about 60 years of the American space enterprise. I wasn’t the first to make these points, either. Kelly’s/the GAO’s key ideas:

  • Project teams are optimistic about their technical abilities
  • NASA lowballs the costs of major missions thinking they’ll get more money if they need it later
  • There’s not enough contingency (rainy-day fund) to cover the inevitable technical hurdles.

Points he doesn’t mention:

  • Smaller missions go way over budget, too. Its just that the overruns aren’t as painful or visible as the James Webb Space Telescope type budget-annihilators.
  • Once a mission gets going, NASA’s appetite for failure dries up, requiring less “aw, it’ll be fine” and more “prove it.”
  • Cost overruns feed contractors and engineers, and while Congresspeople don’t like overruns on the one hand, they do quite like the work coming to their districts.

Elon Musk and Alan Stern had some interesting comments on this whole dynamic in the fifth paragraph of this post, particularly the punishing of on-budget, well-run missions by out-of-control missions.

Pulling the plug on Afghanipakistan

For those who had forgotten, The New Yorker‘s most recent issue has reminded us once again that it is America’s best magazine. You’ve got Anthony Lane visiting Pixar, Malcolm Gladwell revising the revisionist history of Xerox PARC, and a raft of top writers riffing on Pakistan/Afghanistan, among other stories.

You have to read The New Yorker strategically. A thorough treatment each week qualifies as a part-time job. First you hit the comic caption contest in the back. Then the table of contents. Choose articles ruthlessly and ignore all others. Read the opening comment, skip the second story (almost always very NYC-specific and, to those of us in the hinterlands, meaningless). Read Shouts & Murmurs. Fail to do so and, 45 minutes later, you’ll find yourself at the end of a piece about some rising Soho artist whose name you will forget when you close the magazine.

Two pieces in this edition triggered this post. Lawrence Wright’s withering story on Pakistan and Jon Lee Anderson’s “Letter from Khost,” about Afghanistan. Anderson is a phenomenal war writer. In the previous issue, he did a fascinating, and ultimately heartbreaking, piece on the Libyan rebels.

You can’t really read these stories without concluding two things. First, the best we’ll be able to do in Afghanistan is keep it from becoming a terrorist haven again; and  second, that we need to sharply curtail the billions we’re giving to Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment.

The big fear with doing the latter, which Wright touches upon, is that militant Islamists will topple Pakistan’s government and start lobbing nukes at Western cities. But is this a real risk? Think about it. Terrorists are successful precisely because they’re non-state actors. You can’t find the bastards half the time, much less retaliate. For the Pakistani nuclear arsenal to fall into militant hands, Islamic radicals have to become state actors. Once you’re a state, the rules of statecraft apply, and you have another cold war, which we’re pretty good at.

This ignores the risks of nuclear proliferation. But it’s hard to argue that the current Pakistani state has a firm grip on their warheads anyway. A.Q. Khan has already done huge damage.

Finally, a precondition for a radicalized Pakistan is that the Pakistani public (and military) welcomes/tolerates Islamic radicals’ rise to power. Whatever the Arab Spring means, it hasn’t involved protesters calling for religious rather than dictatorial oppression.