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SHOULD OUR CHILDREN “DIE FOR OIL”?

by Michael DiMercurio, [IMAGE]2006

ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED AT MILITARY.COM, September 06, 2006

[IMAGE] I had a debate recently with a thinking woman whose views tend to be somewhat to the left of my own. While she is a business maven, she is also a mother, and when I mentioned that her son would be a great candidate for a service academy, to serve as an officer in the greatest armed force in history, she went white as a ghost.

“My son, and my daughter, will NEVER carry a gun in some stupid war! No way! I’ll NEVER let them be in the military!”

Hysterics aside, the emotional response could be decoded to read that she could not envision a situation in which her offspring should ever be sacrificed at the alter of freedom.

“There’s a war going on in Iraq right now, you warmonger,” she hissed. “Would you ask your son to be over there, getting SHOT AT? For no reason other than to guard the big oil interests’ energy assets? You want your son to die for NOTHING?”

As a matter of fact, I said, he’s trying to get into the Air Force Academy or West Point. He wants to fly the jet or drive the tank or swoop the helicopter, but he also loves the idea of hoisting an M-16 as a grunt and becoming history’s ultimate weapon – the armed infantryman. As a digression, I always wonder, if he becomes a West Point cadet, which side of the stadium do I sit on during the Army-Navy game? A silly question – Navy’s side, of course.

After hearing all the objections a mother can raise to having a son wear the uniform of the U.S. Armed Services, she insisted that we’re fighting for oil because of a conspiracy theory. That Big Business, that Big Oil, is keeping down technologies that would make oil obsolete, and that we as a nation continue to pollute and waste the precious resources of the earth, squandering our children’s future – and their very lives – in our sinfulness. That we should go to work to implement oil-free technologies NOW, and that our failure to do so is the result of a vast right wing plot.

It is always difficult for me to paraphrase an opinion I consider ill-founded. I tend to make the other side’s argument seem ridiculous. Therefore, I decided to let Left Wing Mom speak for herself. The following statements were only edited for grammar, as in the original they were rushed to the page of a hastily written email:

Left Wing Mom: “ I read your editorial ‘What's a Superpower to do?’ Wow, I actually agree with more of it than I thought. Of course you're veering way off with the Iranian H-bomb, and the idea of using an American nuclear weapon to ‘solve the problem’ and then blaming the mushroom cloud on an Iranian technical problem is wild even for you. And saying Roosevelt allowed Pearl Harbor to come under attack? I can’t believe you said that out loud! And as far as Iraq, rather than having our children guard the oil and get killed doing it, the most important thing to be doing is developing, at the most rapid pace, the technology that will radically reduce our dependence on oil...not only ours, but the rest of the worlds' too. Then the lunatic radical Muslims can incinerate each other all they want and we can ignore them. And as to the Russians supplying Iraq with weapons, it’s not time to pick a fight with Russia, that's history. Better to keep them in the inner circle and use them for diplomacy with Iran when the time comes. But you’re not listing the biggest part of the argument, which is that we have to get away from our addiction to oil. Because the most important thing is, American children should NOT be SACRIFICED for oil...not mine, not yours, none! We need to bring on the technologies that have been suppressed for decades, technologies that will make oil use obsolete. Then our soldiers can come home.”

The trouble with quoting her directly, of course, is that it makes her argument seem a bit more lucid. But let’s go to the issues. First, as to Iran, my recommendations in “Iran: What’s a Superpower to do?” stand. So far, they are passing the test of time now that Iran has thumbed their noses at the U.N. deadline.

But what about this business about our children dying for oil? Do we have the technology to make oil use a thing of the past?

Actually, we do have the technology that makes oil obsolete. Several technologies, actually. Here’s a short list:

  • 1. Nuclear fission. For use in large scale power production. Has zero carbon emissions. Zero. Therefore, a favorite of environmentalists. At least the real ones, not the radical pretenders.

  • 2. Coal gasification and combined cycle power. America is the Saudi Arabia of coal. We could use it cleanly. You simply bring coal into a chemical plant that manufactures synthetic natural gas and synthetic liquid fuel (methanol) while discarding the molecules that are bad for the environment, like sulfur and mercury, and you pipe the syn gas or syn liquid into a conventional natural gas burning or oil-fired power plant. Advantage ~ doesn't use oil. Disadvantage ~ makes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is accused of changing the atmosphere and the climate of the planet, and not for the better. (But, if we happen to have another ice age, won’t greenhouse gases come in handy?)

  • 3. Coal gasification at the mine mouth. Chemical plant at source of coal. Syn gas is put into the existing national pipeline infrastructure. Ditto syn liquid fuel. Advantage – again, no reliance on oil. Disadvantage – that pesky carbon emission problem.

  • 4. Triple hybrid cars. Add to present hybrid a hydrogen fuel cell. Car runs on electric motors supplied by batteries. When battery is low, fuel cell kicks in to recharge and provide supplemental power. When fuel cell is low, gas engine comes online. The power unit is recharged back at the house by using efficient, zero carbon power technology (nuclear).

  • 5. Microturbines for households. Distributed power using syn gas and small gas turbines, about the size of your car engine. Powers one house. While this is less efficient than a larger fossil plant and creates more pollution, it would eliminate costly and unsightly infrastructure (large power transmission towers and power lines, which are susceptible to terrorist attacks).
  • So you see, if these technologies were implemented, no American children need die for oil.

    That’s where my email to Left Wing Mom ended. But it occurred to me that we do seem to be ignoring the fact that America has an enormous amount of its own oil. It's in Alaska. Place called the North Slope. Why aren't we exploiting it? Perhaps that’s part of the same conspiracy that is suppressing the above oil-free technologies.

    Left Wing Mom replied promptly:

    “Of course we have technology, but are we developing it, ramping it up? No. Fuel cells have been around for 15 years. It’s bull! We consume 20 million barrels a day of oil, just U.S. consumption. Time is long past to get delivery on alternatives. Reasonable, readily available and not environmentally destructive (which nukes, coal and absurdly long pipelines are).”

    Dear Left Wing Mom, I replied, have you ever heard of economics? You don't go crazy making or "ramping up" or implementing technology that will make energy at the equivalent of $150/barrel. Oil was $30/barrel seven years ago. Natural gas was so plentiful that they started cramming it into pipelines and building quickie power plants with gas turbine engines (think a jet engine the size of your house). Now that oil's north of $70/barrel and natural gas is six times the price it once was early in the decade, economics dictates that we explore alternatives.

    When oil is cheap, I continued, all you can (economically) do is test or "pilot plant" the technology for eventual use, you don't actually build it. Why? Who would drive up to your gas station if you're selling gasoline for $16.87/gallon when the station across the street sells it for $3.12/gallon? That's why we’re not building the new technologies yet. You have to consume the available oil first. Then you go to coal and nuclear technologies. That will last 200 to 350 years. Then when the uranium runs out and the coal runs out (and the oil has been long gone for 200 years), then you go to geothermal. You see, we're all sitting on an ocean of lava, white hot magma. It's 11 miles deep under your sneakers, but consider it an inexhaustible amount of power. That and solar together will be the power sources of the Year of Our Lord 2357. So there’s no conspiracy or black helicopters, it’s just the money talking. So listen to it.

    But after I sent my reply, I kept thinking. As far as Iraq and Iran go, the idea of developing new technologies that will eliminate the need to safeguard America’s energy interests with armed force is a few decades away, even with a crash program. And crash programs are generally against the laws of economics.

    But isn’t it worth the national expenditure if it saves lives? What’s a life worth? Priceless, right?

    If you were to ask a personal injury trial attorney that question, assuming he’s had three or four pops of scotch to ensure his candor, he’d tell you a human life is worth between $1 million to $3 million, depending on fault and the level of insurance coverage. How does the Pentagon view the cost of a soldier? Based on recruitment of scarce personnel resources and the levels of investment per soldier for training, equipment, and support, you would arrive at the same approximate figure, and whenever two different means of finding a number converge on the same answer, it has to be right, doesn’t it? (Not really, but let’s keep going for a while.) Were we to lose 5,000 troops in Iraq, that would equate to roughly $10 billion. Then add in the estimated cost of the war by adding up Congressional appropriations bills. The total “War on Terror” estimated cost through 2007 is $487 billion (Congressional Research Service). Interesting to note that the loss of human life at $10 billion is a small fraction of the almost $500 billion we’re spending on the war. For Iraq alone, the bill is only $315 billion, but add on that $10 billion in human life and you get a nice round $325 billion.

    Now let’s compare the cost of that to the implementation of the new oil-free technologies. They would cost, with an accelerated construction program, about $2,000 per kilowatt capacity for replacing oil technology with oil-free technology (cheap natural gas power plant project costs are about $1000/kilowatt, synthetic combined cycle power would cost $1500 to $2000/kilowatt depending on the technology eventually used and the construction schedule). The number of megawatts used in America today are 605,000 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Inventory of Electric Utility Power Plants in the United States, 2000”). That means that it would cost about $1.2 trillion to implement a nationwide conversion to oil-free technology. As we know, all back-of-the-envelope estimates can only come up with at best half of the cost to do a project (and with some, perhaps only a tenth, as the moon landing program cost reviews showed). So let’s be safe and multiply by three. That’s $3.6 trillion.

    So, new technology, $3,600 billion. War in Iraq, only $325 billion. A bargain by the standards of any economist. It means we could be in Iraq for THREE DECADES and still have a cheaper endeavor than turning away from oil.

    I continue to press the point that politics is an extension of economics. Economics is as strong a force as physics. So long as oil is still (relatively) cheap, we will continue to do what we must to keep our hands on it.

    But that still leaves one last nagging doubt in my mind. About my son, strapping on Nomex gloves and firing up the jet of his Cobra helicopter? I’d still feel better about him doing that if he were protecting the existence of America from the threat of invasion rather than to protect oil assets or economic scenarios. In the Cold War, it was worth risking my own life to go toe-to-toe with the Russkies in order to defeat the sweeping octopus of World Communism and make the world safe for democracy. But to have my son risk his life to keep gasoline from reaching $5 a gallon?

    Maybe Left Wing Mom had a point after all. But please, don’t tell her I said so.

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    MORE! On VERTICAL DIVE

    VERTICAL DIVE:
    As hurricane Helen barrels in toward the Virginia coastline, the U.S. Navy’s Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet orders all vessels to scramble to sea, including Burke Dillinger’s Hampton and Peter Vornado’s Texas.

    But this is no mere storm evacuation.

    There is something sinister going on in the eastern Atlantic. The Navy’s eyes are on the ballistic missile submarine force, the “boomer” submarines loaded to the gills with intercontinental nuclear warheads. And the French boomer submarine Le Vigilant has “gone bad,” hijacked by an Algerian terrorist with dreams of completing the circle of revenge and using French nuclear weapons on the French who killed his father.

    As terrorist Issam Zauabri’s forces learn how to employ the nuclear missiles, Vornado’s Texas and Dillinger’s Hampton close in on the threat, but Issam knows how to use torpedoes as well as he does the missiles, and Le Vigilant is one of the quietest submarines ever built. Once the American subs are on the bottom, his attack can proceed on Paris, but since it was Americans who interfered, Issam will save one missile for New York…

    “Compelling and visionary. DiMercurio’s characters run as deep as his submarines themselves!”

    --Joe Buff, author of Straits Of Power, Tidal Rip, Crush Depth, Thunder in the Deep, And Deep Sound Channel.

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    terminalrun.com
    Michael DiMercurio
    Princeton, New Jersey
    E-mail:
    readermail@terminalrun.com

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