December 27, 2009

Power Trip by Amanda Little

Power Trip by Amanda Little

From oil wells to solar cells - Our ride to the renewable future.

[Book articulates all the risks (finance and unpredictable factors) in oil exploration in a nutshell and asks the question. A very good book which covers in details on all the segments where we consume energy and possibility of saving them by going Green.]

"If an energy company is going to throw a billion dollars into something untested and possible doomed to failure, wouldn't it make more sense to invest in the inexhaustible greener technologies that will likely replace fossil fuels?".

A New York Times has reported that the global petroleum demand for energy could triple by mid-century. A mere 4 % shortfall in oil production, could lead to a 177% increase in the price of oil. One of world's leading oil industry analyst, Daniel Yergin, who was awarded a Pulitzer for his book, "The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power' mentioned recently that we may reach a plateau... perhaps in 2 to 3 decades.

In the town square of Beaumont, TX holds a 60-foot-tall pink granite inscription reads: "On this spot on the Jan 10, 1901, a new era in civilization began". At 10:30am on this day, while crowd gathered to watch, the geyser coated he onlookers with a mist of inky, pungent liquid the consistency of corn syrup:black gold.(The finding of huge oil well successfully explored that day).

Oil prospecting had begun well before this finding- in mid 1800, when the petroleum by product kerosene was discovered as an illuminant that burned brighter, cleaner and more safety than whale oil and was far cheaper to produce. Instantly, demand for the lantern fuel began to escalate - not just in USA, but throughout EU, Russia and Asia. One man, John D. Rockefeller presided over those ballooning markets. His mission was to deliver 'the git of 'new light' to the world of darkness" - a gift for the moment was supplied exclusively by oil wells in the American Northeast. Rathskeller's entrepreneurial instincts took hold in high school when he dropped out his senior year to study banking, bookkeeping and law at a professional school near his family house in Cleveland, Ohio. Three years later with a partner and $1000 of his won savings, he setup a company that packaged and distributed regional crops and meats. As he watched demand for the illumination fuel escalate, Rockefeller became convinced of its enormous commercial potential. He acquired his first refinery in 1863 at the age of 24 and had achieved near-total domination over the production and distribution of oil in USA by the age of forty.

A compulsively orderly and fastidious man, Rockefeller was never interested in the grimy, frenzied oil-prospecting side of the industry; it was making the end product and selling it to customers that intrigued him. He realized early on that it was much more profitable to let the fluctuations and uncertainties of production - while he maintained tight control of the refining, marketing and distribution of petroleum products. When Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870, there were some 250 refinery operation in the Northeast and, more than 85% of the market was under his control. Rathskeller's reach extended far beyond refining, he aimed to commandeer all stages of the flow of oil from the moment it surged from a derrick to its processing, packaging and transportation to store shelves and gas pumps. Rockefeller is the first person to create a national product in a country that had never had national products.

Rockefeller told once," Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things fail because we lack concentration , the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else. Rockefeller made it a rule to speak rarely , if ever in meetings- letting his staff and competitions do the talking. " A man of words and not deeds is like a garden full of weeds" went one of his rare credos. Another was summed up in a curious rhyme he kept in his desk:

"A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he listened the less hi spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why aren't we all like that old bird?"

Rockefeller expressed no outward remorse over crushing smaller companies in his pursuit of control. Instead he celebrated it: "The American Beauty rose can be produced in all its splendor only by sacrificing the early buds that grow up around it", once he remarked.

Due to on growing protest from independent refiners, the Justice Dept sued Standard Oil for antitrust violations in 1909 and after 444 witnesses gave testimony, the company was found guilty and got maximum penalty. The largest of its subsidiaries was Standard oil of New Jersey which later became Exxon. Standard Oil California later became Chevron, subsequently merging with Buckskin's Joe's Texaco. Standard Oil New York later became Mobil. The Standard Oil of Ohio later became part of BP. Standard Oil of Indiana became Amoco. These subsidiaries eventually compromised six of the legendary 'Seven Sisters' that dominated global oil production throughout the 20th century. In 1917, the profits of the spin-off companies had collectively shot up to double, then triple the profits of Standard Oil before the dissolution. Rockefeller, in turn had nearly quadrupled his wealth and become the richest man in the world. The US was in today's terms the Saudi Arabia of the world , a country whose vast plains , deserts and ranch lands supplied the majority if the world's oil - and would continue to do so for several decades.

In US politics, Oil money started to rule as well. Even Eisenhower's smashing personal victory was quickly followed by a fulsome display of gratitude to its oil supporters. Indeed, at the presidential level, event he most respected administrators of the 20th century - esp. the most respected administrations, including FDR, JFK, And Regan's - have brokered and nurtured relationship with oil productions both domestic and international that openly abetted America's appetite for oil. " the trouble with the country is that you can't win an election without the oil bloc," Roosevelt famously said, "and you can't govern with it".

The second world war extended to Soviet Union by Germans and USA by Japans are mainly related to oil. Germany relied mainly on the Soviet Union and Romania for its oil and hence the fight to capture Soviet Union by Germans so that it can fuel its gas-fueled war vehicles without any issue. Like German's, Japan was heavily motivated by oil. By the end of 1930, Japan depended on US to provide the vast majority of its oil needs.Japan hoped to conquer all of Southeast Asia, including the oil fields of the East Indies and open the shipping lanes between those fields and Japan. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was an attempt to immobilize the US Pacific fleet so it could not cut Japanese forces when they moved south of East Indies.

US & Saudi Arabia - setting up a new relationship:

Immediately after the Yalta Conference of Feb. 4-11,1945 at which the Allies established guidelines for their now-certain victory in Europe, Roosevelt set sail abroad USSS Quincy for a destination on the Suez Canal where he'd arranged to meet Abdul Aziz Saud , King of Saudi Arabia. This was to be one of the most fascinating and pivotal meetings of the 20th century. The meeting took place on Valentine's day. After signing the bi-lateral agreement, Ibn Saud said, " Gentlemen, the Japanese offered me twice as much for one-third of what you now obtain. In return, US agreed to provide protection to the sovereignty of the Kingdom.

King Ibn Saud was descendant of one of the first Wahhabis. He was born in the Arabian desert, but as a boy he was exiled with his family to Kuwait by a rival group known as Rashidis. In 1901, then only his twenties, Ibn Saud led a bold and ultimately successful assault to the Rashidis. By 1925, after nearly continuous fighting, he had claim to much of the peninsula, including the religious sites of Mecca and Medina. By 1932, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born, with Ibn Saud as its leader.
(Note: Saudi Arabia is the only country that has family name as country name)

America's Top Model (Model T car):

Henry Ford, the father of the American automobile industry, was born outside of Dearborn, Michigan in 1863. The descendant of Belgian and Irish immigrants, Ford attended a one-room schoolhouse and worked on his family's farm until the age of sixteen when he left for Detroit where he worked in a machine shop bu day and by night he repaired clocks and watches. He once said after his very successful automobile automation of Model T car, "Money means nothing to me and there is nothing I cannot have. But I do not want the things money can buy". Ford's automation brought down the car's selling price considerably and thus more people could afford a car. However, their competitor, General Motors, it was all about style. The GM focus was on selling consumers cars not for his mechanical performance, but for social status and sense of identify they conferred.

The Chevy was for blue-collar people with solid jobs and young couples just starting out who had to be careful with money; the Pontiac was for more successful people who were confident about their economic futures and wanted a sportier car - one thinks of the young man just out of low-school, the Old was for the white collar bureaucrat or old-fashioned manager; the Buick was for the town's doctor, the young lawyer who was bout to be made partner or the elite of the managerial class; the Cadillac was for the top executive or owner of the local factory.

Road Scholar:
Before Eisenhower became president in 1953, road building had been largely overseen by the states. America's highways were patchy and disjointed; only half of the nation's 3 million miles of roads were paved when Eisenhower took office. He warned that the level of congestion and the state of disrepair on American road was dangerous and could stymie economic growth. "Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.... over a vast system of interconnected highways. Together the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear - United states. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts". His personal convictions would ultimately grow into the biggest interstate highway network in the world, at 40,000-plus miles and the biggest and costliest public works program in history.

Little Boxes:
Among the many beneficiaries of Eisenhower's interstate highway system, real-estate developer William Levitt arguably had the biggest impact on the American lifestyle. Levitt was the architect of America's first mass-produced suburb, Levitton which could serve as a leading model for suburbs throughout the country. Levitt built an identical 17,000 unit development in Pennsylvania. His company produced its homes at rates unthinkable even by today's standard. - a new one was finished every 15 minutes.

Railway network - Derailed.
Historians still debate the factors that led to the triumph of automobiles over railroads, trolleys and streetcars. Did consumers decide that they preferred the convenience and comfort of automobile or was there a deliberate corporate effort to sabotage the intricate network of railways that once webbed throughout the nation? The answer is probably a little of both.
Watch Who Killed the Electric Car documentary film for more details on politics and power that plays in the oil sector.

Plastic Explosive:
Look around you - petrochemical by-products are everywhere.Plastics don't get rusty, rotten, weathered, dull or tarnished. This presents significant and dire problems from an environmental standpoint as we glut our landfills and sully our oceans with permanent waste. But the unparalleled durability of plastics can be a good thing when it comes to safety. The first wave of plastics were not from Petroleum, but from cellophane which was first manufactured in DuPont factory.

One of the biggest problem with plastics with recycling today is that there is such a vast variety of different plastics (around 80,000 types) and they can't all be limped together in a single recycling process.

Population Bomb.
Thomas Malthus was an unlikely prophet of worldwide famine, gloom and doom. 'An essay on the Principle of Population' - a theory by Malthus can be boiled down to this: while population grows geometrically (2,4,8,16,etc,), the food supply grows arithmetically (1,2,3,4,etc,) and so at some point disaster will inevitable ensue as the populace outstrips its sustenance. Investigating the food problem, Europeans scientists recognized that the single biggest constraint on food production was the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Natural deposits of pure nitrate were rare and could only be found in small supply in South America. A pressing question is where to get supplemental nitrogen? German scientist, Fritz Haber came up with an answer and it was as obvious as it was revolutionary: air. the very air we breathe is a mixture of about 20% oxygen and 80% nitrogen. Haber discovered that if subjected to enough pressure and heat, those cozy molecules could be zapped apart to form pure nitrogen, which could be combined with hydrogen to form a substance capable of reviving anemic soil. The problem Haber faced is even still true that this conversion require enormous amount of energy(fuel usage).

Haber's invention won him the Nobel price for Chemistry in 1918. Many historians credits Haber with the single most significant invention of the last century. "Airplanes, nuclear energy, space flight, TV and computers,... none of these inventions has been as fundamentally important as the industrial synthesizes of ammonia from its elements." wrote Valclav Smil.

Chain of Fuels:
Growing and harvesting crops only accounts for 20% of the total energy consumption of our food systems and the rest if used in processing, transportation, and storage. The term 'food miles' that refers to the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is consumed. For example, in average produce sold in Midwest travels about 1,500 miles - from farm to fork.

For example, consider a simple banana - a vast majority of bananas consumed in the US are grown in hundreds of farm in Central America where they are picked while still green, placed in cardboard packaging and hauled via trucks to central distribution hubs. The bananas are immediately refrigerated to inhibit ripening, repackaged in sturdier boxes and trucked to coastal shipping ports. Here they are loaded into temperature controlled containers that hold nearly a 1000 banana boxes each and then sent to their ocean voyage. Once they arrive in US, these same containers are hauled to 100s of distribution centers throughout the US by trucks(as due to poor rail system). At these US hubs, the bananas are stripped some of their packages and stored for 4 days in specially designed airtight rooms pumped full of ethylene gas (a petrochemical) which rapidly ripens the fruit to its yellow color. Shrink-wrapped and repackaged the bananas are then driven to tens of thousands of grocers by another round of refrigerated trucks. In total, the bananas go through at least 5 different transportation and three different stages of packaging form farm to grocer.

There is a trend to buy local agricultured products. Google HQ campus has the '150 club' which serves food purchased within 150 miles of the campus. Wall-mart has also recently became the biggest purchaser of local produce. Whole Foods sources around 17% of its produce annually from local farms. This helps the company to reduce their fuel cost and cheaper for them to buy from local supplier(Wall-Mart contracts Florida forms for certain types fo vegetables)

Trade Wins:
As WWII came to close, US spearheaded the effort to broker an era of global corporations. The war ridden Europe, Japan was not only had millions of soldiers and citizens died , but the building , roads, factories and infrastructure of most of their major cities were reduced to rubble,. they needed rebuilding from ground up. America took the level with 2 initiatives - the Bretton Woods accords of 1944 and the Marshall Plan of 1947-51 - that sought to reconstruct war-torn nations and open the world to unfettered trade.

Though the US in 1945 was churning out half the world's coal, nearly 70% of the world's oil and more than half of its electricity, we were already getting thirsty for more. IN Regan's era, transportation was deregulated - trucking, airline, shipping and rail industries has previously tightly controlled. Air cargo industry for example, experienced 500% growth.

Shipshape: Perhaps nobody knows more about containers than economist Marc Levinson., author of 'The Box: How the shipping Container made the world smaller and the world economics bigger'. says:" before the shipping container came along, transporting goods was so expensive that it did not pay to ship many things half way across the country , let alone the halfway around the world. The container was born out of the same kind of practical ingenuity that gave rise to Tupperware, Levittown, and Model T cars. It was the brainchild of Malcom McLean, a self-made entrepreneur from Maxton, NC.

Petroleum can help feed the masses, regulate heartbeats, grow industries, create wealth, warm homes, clothe our families and get us where we need to go. By the same token, it can also provoke and power war, bankrupt industries, and pollute and heat the planet. It can just as easily as it can corrupt.

Fresh Greens:
Highlights the importance of green energy and President Obama's effort to make millions of jobs by exploring Greenish effect. Alexis de Tocqueville who traveled throughout US in 1830s mentioned about US in his classic works 'Democracy in America' which says, " The greatness of Merica lies not in being more en-lighted than any other nations, but rather in her ability to repair her faults".

Will America does repair its faults in this century too? (by going green?); Watch out!.

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