Re: Energy Policy / Junk Science Environmentalism

From: Al Koop <>
Date: Thu Dec 22 2005 - 14:03:17 EST

Don has asked (what is to me) one of the most important questions of all: "This puts my brain in a bind. How can these intelligent, well-informed people whose lives are oil not take this apparently looming problem seriously?" (I'll give my answer to this specific question later in this response.)

Don's question is a part of the more general question: "Why do people think the way they do?" At the end of a semester and after finishing grading exams where some students still do not even grasp certain basic ideas that were presented again and again, the question always arises in my mind: "Why have these students still missed this central idea?" (You would be surprised by the number of students in college with a chemistry course under their belt taking an introductory freshman biology course for majors covering cell and molecular biology, who, still at the end of the course and after even having had the same concept covered in class in many times in one form or another and on a previous test and having been told to know the size of various cellular and molecular entities, will deem a water molecule H2O to be larger than a cell.)

An intriguing exploration of this question can be found in the DVD produced by the Science Media Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: A Private Universe/Minds of our Own. It shows certain bright students who previously had formed some odd, incorrect idea about a topic, who, even after several days or weeks of study of that topic, revert back to their previous erroneous perception and fail to incorporate the results of their recent learning. From the DVD cover: "How can students graduate from prestigious schools like Harvard or MIT and not even know some of the most basic ideas in science taught in grade school? These award-winning programs, A PRIVATE UNIVERSE and MINDS OF OUR OWN, investigate the answers to this perplexing question, and help reveal why science taught in schools can so often end up unlearned." If you haven't seen this presentation, it is worth giving it a look if you can find it.

In a similar vein, recently we had the story break about the Korean stem cell project with false data. This type of erroneous report seems to happen about every 5 years or so. What are these scientists thinking? Publishing a momentous paper that all kinds of people are going to try to repeat where you have made up some of the data makes no sense.

Now with regard to oil executives, I suspect that Glenn is right in thinking that they do not have the time to strategize very far into the future. At a scholarship dinner I sat at a table with a Dow Chemical vice president. I asked him if his CEO was at all concerned about their feedstock reserves and the likely peaking of natural gas resources in North America soon. He said that most of the concern at that level was the next three month financial report and any thinking beyond a year was pretty much nonexistent.

The following link will take you to a business report that makes the case for an immense amount of oil reserves coming on line soon; peak oil is far into the future:,17863,1134799,00.html.

I don't think there are many people in this country who could read that report over and not feel that we are in very good shape with regard to our oil supplies for the next 50 years. There is a lot of faith in technology among the leaders of this world and people in general, and a large majority believe there is no shortage of resources in the fossil fuel industry for the next century. The major error in thinking by all of the optimists (in my opinion) is that they see the price of all of these new technologies at today's prices staying there, and they think that when the price of oil goes much higher all of these new resources will be profitable and replace the reduced oil from conventional sources. What they fail to understand is 1.) the rate at which oil can be recovered from such unconventional sources is likely to far too small to replace today's oil from conventional sources and 2.) the price of these other sources depends on the price of oil and as it goes up, the !
price of oil from the unconventional sources will also go up, quite possibly (even likely) to never allow them to be profitable.

Finally, I don't think that many people, including executives of oil companies, see a big problem for the world if oil does peak. They think that we have other alternative energy sources that will replace the oil. GM has big ads and business articles in the press that tout the new hydrogen economy; Schwartzeneggar has promised hydrogen stations along some California freeways in a few years for a new fleet of hydrogen cars, Iceland is running some hydrogen cars and London and some other cities have hydrogen busses. To the general public it seems that the hydrogen economy is just around the corner. Besides we have biofuels and stories abound about the local environmentalists who run their cars on old french fry cooking oil; Congress has mandated more ethanol from corn. Who really cares if the oil companies lose some money and they start going the way of the typewriter, or the cassette recorder, or the telephone booth. Progress happens. Any oil executive who buys into the !
alternative energy hype surely does not want to encourage these competing companies so that they get their technology going before the oil companies can sell all of their oil. Now again, in my opinion, these new alternative energies themselves today depend heavily on cheap oil to be produced and when the price of oil goes up, the price of hydrogen and biofuels will likewise increase, and maybe never will be profitable. Also biofuels can never be produced in quantities that will replace fossil fuels.

So the question will be: Why believe you people who predict this gloom and doom? Why shouldn't I believe all of these business optimists? Again my answer is: Find some small concrete problem where we can agree to disagree. Let us research it and see where that takes us---are the people who see problems ahead representing the situation accurately or are the optimists representing the situation accurately?
Received on Thu Dec 22 14:05:22 2005

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