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Tilting at Windmills

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May 5, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ENERGY INDEPENDENCE....On Friday, John McCain announced that his forthcoming energy plan would "eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East." On Saturday I ridiculed this as idiocy. After all, there isn't an energy analyst in the world who seriously thinks we can eliminate oil imports from the Middle East. Saying otherwise, I said, was "a child's fantasy."

On Sunday, one of my regular conservative correspondents took me to task. If McCain is an idiot, what does that make Barack Obama? Here's an excerpt from his energy policy page:

Set America on Path to Oil Independence

Obama's plan will reduce oil consumption by at least 35 percent, or 10 million barrels per day, by 2030. This will more than offset the equivalent of the oil we would import from OPEC nations in 2030.

"Take off the Obama beer goggles already," my emailer said. (We have one of those warm internet friendships.) Since we currently import less than 10 million barrels per day from the Middle East, Obama was actually promising to do more than John McCain.

Yes and no. It's true that reducing American oil consumption by 10 million barrels a day is an aggressive goal — as it should be. Unlike McCain, though, who doesn't care about this enough to even bother with a placeholder energy plan on his issues page, Obama (like Hillary Clinton) has a pretty thorough set of proposals to get us there. The real question, however, is how tolerant you are of clever wording. Unlike McCain, Obama doesn't promise to eliminate reliance on Middle East oil. This is probably because his policy people have told him that not only is this impossible, but as oil production falls in the rest of the world our reliance on the Middle East is almost certain to grow, not decline in the future. So instead he pledges to "offset the equivalent" of the oil we import from OPEC. This isn't actually a promise to cut Middle East oil imports at all, but it sounds an awful lot like it.

(Hillary Clinton, by comparison, promises to "cut foreign oil imports by two-thirds from 2030 projected levels, more than 10 million barrels per day." Make of that what you will.)

So, which is worse: flat out BS (McCain) or wording that's technically correct but a bit dodgy in the impression it leaves (Obama)? I'd vote for the BS, but your mileage may vary.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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Comments

The only way eliminate reliance on MidEast oil is to cut reliance on oil. Any energy policy which doesn't set that as a goal is blowing smoke when it comes to MidEast oil.

Has anyone ever accurately predicted consumption levels more than 20 years out?

Posted by: martin on May 5, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

So will the countries economists pile on Obama for this clearly bogus pander?

Posted by: jerry on May 5, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Clearly McCain's BS is worse, because he doesn't even know or care enough to come up with a half-way believable policy. He just throws out some nice-sounding hooey out there and hopes it will stick. The guy really is an idiot--and we've had 8 years of one of those.

Posted by: Steve on May 5, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

We will not be importing 10 million barrels a day from the middle east by 2030 because by that time the Middle East will be as depleted as West Texas. The OPEC countries are already having trouble keeping up with the dramatically increasing demand from China and India. We are going to hit Obama's goal whether we want to or not. We don't have any choice. The oil culture is coming to an end. It is better to anticipate and plan for the coming change than wait for the crash.

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 5, 2008 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

To me, the Clinton one is the most straightforward. She acknowledges we have no way to control where our foreign comes form - Mideast, Russia, South America, so she just says to reduce foreign oil consumption. Given that we are not likely to get a whole lot of new oil from domestic sources, this is pretty clear.

Posted by: MarkedMan on May 5, 2008 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Ron: You may be right. However, the Middle East will be the last supplier standing. After we hit peak oil and start declining, our reliance on Middle East oil will grow, not fall.

But yes, obviously the only way to seriously address this is by cutting oil consumption in general. Obama has some good proposals for doing this, while McCain has nothing.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 5, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

And we haven't even begun to tap the oil resources of American teenagers' faces.

(gratuitous Kentucky Fried Movie reference)

Posted by: absent observer on May 5, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Talking about imported “middle eastern” oil is a bit misleading. Imported oil is fungible. It doesn’t really matter if it comes from Norway or Venezuela or Kuwait. It all comes off the world oil market at the same price.

Posted by: fafner1 on May 5, 2008 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

So, which is worse: - Kevin

Well, that depends on what the meaning of is is.

BS is easier to see thru so I vote for that. The person parsing words is still doing BS but showing that they are elitist by trying to pull the wool over peoples faces.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 5, 2008 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

If I understand this post, the argument is that Obama's website has more carefully drafted, deceptive qualifications than McCain's speech, and is therefore superior. That seems like apples and oranges: obviously a written piece would contain a lot of careful phrases designed to make the piece unfalsifiable, whereas a speech usually doesn't.

Posted by: y81 on May 5, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Ron, has an important point. World production of oil will almost certainly be lower in 2030 than today. It is also the case that the American portion of this smaller pie will not be as great as today.

We have a big problem talking about oil consumption and imports in this country. It is easy -and very common to use the publics conflation of imports from OPEC -or Saudi Arabia with total imports. As oil is fungible it is largely immaterial who we import it from, but rather how much we import that matters.

Another thing to keep in mind is what Peal Oilers refer to as the Export Land Model. This basically says that as an oil exporters economy grows, he will consume a greater proportion of his oil output. This implies that the net amount of oil available for export will decrease faster than the total world production of oil. Total exportable oil has probably already peaked.

As anyone with more than a quarter of a brain knows, the only way out is to dramatically reduce our usage. Its just that no politician dare mention this. It is likely that starting a few years from now, a switch to plug in hybrids will begin. This -plus improvements to public transportation seems to be the best medium term answer.

Posted by: bigTom on May 5, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Brazil.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on May 5, 2008 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, your wording is unclear. I suspect you choose Obama, but you say you prefer the "BS," which I took to apply to Obama's misleading-but-technically-correct language, but then I realized you had described McCain's view as "flat out BS."

So do you prefer McCain's flat-out BS, or Obama's misleading BS? Which BS is the best?

Posted by: J on May 5, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

J, Kevin was not being unclear. He asked which was worse, not which was preferable. The BS was worse.

Posted by: Steve on May 5, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

I understand that oil if fungible and it all goes into the world market. Sadly all the large high yield sweet crude oil fields in the world have been found and have either been or are now being depleted. The world stopped finding more oil than it needs decades ago. Since then we have been finding less and less oil relative to demand which continues to increase. The oil reserves we have been finding are ever more expensive to exploit.

It is long past time to move away from oil. bigTom is right. No politician has the balls to tell us the truth. The end of the oil culture is near. If we do nothing the peak oil nuts will be proven right. Civilization as we know it will collapse. Hundreds of millions or billions will starve. Hideous wars will be fought.

Our (the world's) only chance is to convert from oil to other forms of energy technology. Save our ever more expensive oil for something other than burning in internal combustion engines.

Change is happening already. For example, my cousin and her husband ranch in Wyoming. They are going green not because it is good for the earth, but because it is the only way they can make a living.

Wind or solar power anyone?

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 5, 2008 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

So do you prefer McCain's flat-out BS, or Obama's misleading BS?

Mainstream candidates exhaust BS like carbon dioxide every time they speak. McCain flat out lies about reducing oil consumption, Obama intimates it is OPEC's oil we want to reduce consumption of, as if OPEC were the problem, and Clinton parrots McCain's useless gas tax holiday pander to appeal to the less than informed voter. They are all trying to work the increasing cost of energy to their political advantage with BS.

When Obama BS'd about his pastor, people were fine with that. When Clinton BS'd about annihilating Iran, people were fine with that. Most people are fine with McCain's BS because he was a POW forty years ago.

BS is expected from American politicians. When candidates do not BS, they are considered unelectable. The first candidate who proposes increasing gas taxes to reduce consumption by 10 million barrels a day wins the solution prize, but loses the election.

Posted by: Brojo on May 5, 2008 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Ron is right (gasp! I can't believe me) in that we need to switch from an oil-based perspective. But wind and solar won't be able to solve all our problems. It is going to take a combination of nuclear, wind, solar, thermal and geothermal, etc. for us to get through this, along with conservation and improvements in energy efficiency.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 5, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, fair enough Steve, I read over it too quickly.

Still, Kevin did say he was "voting for" the BS. That phrase typically expresses a preference. That the vote was for the "worse" of two options was way at the start of the prior sentence remains, in my view, cause for confusion. People typically vote for things they like/prefer.

It would have been more clear if he had said: "I'd vote for the BS as the worse approach, but your mileage may vary."

Posted by: J on May 5, 2008 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum wrote

Ron: You may be right. However, the Middle East will be the last supplier standing. After we hit peak oil and start declining, our reliance on Middle East oil will grow, not fall.

That depends on what you mean by "oil." If you mean only light crude then the Middle East has a chance to be the major supplier. And that is only if Iran's production has been lagging because of an inablity to apply technology rather than true supply deficiencies. It seems more likely that the world will move to heavier crude (even heavier than the stuff in Kevin's back yard) and Venezuela will be the primary oil power.

Posted by: rk on May 5, 2008 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Beyond a certain level, bullshit is bullshit. All three candidates are bullshit artists on this issue. Who really cares which is worst?

The only really relevant question is which candidate is likely to do the most harm in actually trying to insttitute their stated policy, and even here, since I don't think any are really serious, the answer is completely meaningless.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on May 5, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Ron, has an important point. World production of oil will almost certainly be lower in 2030 than today.

I believe 2030 is when the most optimistic forecast is for peak oil - with demand rising - I believe that comes from the oil industry itself. We're just 22 years away and it will only come sooner than that not later. Twenty-two years (or much less) isn't a whole hell of a lot of time to do a switcheroo.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 5, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

The worlds population is currently increasing at about 1% a year and as under-developed nations prosperity increases, their per capita energy consumption will increase accordingly. Expect worldwide energy consumption to probably double or more in twenty years even with improved energy efficiency in practice everywhere.

Where will most of this energy come from? It looks to me like its gonna be some mix of oil, coal and nuclear, pick your poison.

Nations will make that choice rather then self-destruct into economic chaos, famine and war due to the shortage of affordable energy.

Coal or nuclear power anyone?

Posted by: Rhythmwize on May 5, 2008 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Rhythmwize,

You are on the wrong site with that prediction, unless, of course, you are just trying to pick a fight.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on May 5, 2008 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

A little over a year ago I read something that took me aback. The Indians purchased compressed air car technology from a French manufacturer.

http://www.rediff.com/money/2007/mar/21car.htm

I had been following the air car for some time because the technology is very interesting. Essentially it uses internal combustion engine technology replacing exploding gasoline with compressed air.

I mention this in this thread because somebody in India seems to actually be thinking about problem solving. If our business and governmental leadership doesn't start thinking outside the box, and fast, the future will belong to some other country or countries.

The obvious weakness of the air car is that it demands a lot of electricity to compress air. The Indians are bring a lot of electricity generating plants on line. Of course, compressed airs have several advantages over alternative electric cars. First, it is doesn't take all day to recharge. In addition, composite air tanks are much cheaper than high tech batteries and fuel cells. Finally any mechanic can be trained to maintain one.

Leaders in other countries are already starting to adapt. Why can't we?

Posted by: Ron Byers on May 5, 2008 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin asked: "So, which is worse ..."

What's worse is Kevin's ignoring the multiple, detailed, realistic plans that have already been put forward by energy experts like Amory Lovins for phasing out virtually all fossil fuel use within a couple of decades, or the plan published in the December 2007 Scientific American for moving the USA to a solar and wind powered economy by mid-century?

Why does Kevin persist in pretending that no such plans exist?

Particularly, why did Kevin ignore the substantive information that I posted about such plans in his previous thread on this subject, instead choosing to obsess about some Obama-baiting stupidity from a "regular conservative correspondent" (a.k.a. Republican troll)?

Posted by: SecularAnimist on May 5, 2008 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Ron Byers wrote:
Leaders in other countries are already starting to adapt. Why can't we?

George W. Bush.

Posted by: josef on May 5, 2008 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

Ron Byers wrote: "Of course, compressed airs have several advantages over alternative electric cars. First, it is doesn't take all day to recharge."

I like the air car technology. It is extremely elegant. Note that on a larger scale, compressed air pumped into airtight underground caverns is envisioned as a utility-scale power storage solution for solar and wind generated electricity.

Having said that, check out Toshiba's new generation lithium batteries, the "Super Charge ion Battery (SCiB)". They can be charged to ninety percent capacity in five minutes and last ten years.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on May 5, 2008 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

In terms of who has the best chance to lead America in a new direction regarding energy policy, Obama is clearly the best choice. It will come down to a Congressional/Presidential consensus, and I think Obama is a FAR FAR better builder of such than McCain. Hillary is not a factor, unless she wants to help shape policy from the Senate. Obama will surprise us with a more comprehensive plan I believe. If he does not, we may not have another good opportunity. My October surprise watch is a suspiciously timed release of the hugely burgeoned strategic petroleum reserve to drive down prices.

Posted by: Sparko on May 5, 2008 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK
Obama was actually promising to do more than John McCain.

Actually you misrepresent McCains opinion here! McCain didn`t just say he would "eliminate" the US dependence on "foreign"* oil, he said he would end the wars in the middle east by cutting the dependence of the US**! Isn`t that more than anyone else has promised.

"No blood for oil" sounds good, until you realize the logic is awfully similar to "No war because we will have found unicorns". He is kinda out-hoping Obama on this one. (Could Hagees prayers be more effective than Wrights? He has a bigger church, more contributers and hates more people so maybe its worth a shot!)

I would vote for a candidate who promises there will be no wars despite increasing dependence.

Lets all try and criticize the complete wording when it comes to McCains policy of the day on wars in the middle east.

*) To bad about that Brazilian oil field.
**) Oh thank god, the Chinese will take it, not surprising since McCains campaign chief lobbied for Chinas national offshore oil company CNOOC. To bad McCain will have to get rid of his chief fundraiser whose lobbying outfit did a lot of work for the Saudi Royal family. And those are just some of the more respected clients whose lobbyist boarded the straight talk express.

Posted by: asdf on May 5, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Hey Kevin: Could you look into the idea of a thorium -- liquid sodium reactor and let us know if it's a reasonable idea or utter hogwash. The blurb I saw says it was an idea worked up at Oak Ridge about 50 years ago or so, and just fell under the political speeding bus of the pressured water reactor at that time. The proponents argue that it is inherently safe, cheaper to build and to run, generates essentially safe waste, and is based on fuel that is highly prevalent in the earth's crust. I'm not enough of a physicist or engineer to evaluate any of this, but the claims are intriguing.

Posted by: Bob G on May 5, 2008 at 8:42 PM | PERMALINK

McCain doesn't have a plan, he promises to have a plan, the point of his speech was to mythically reduce oil needs so we don't have to fight any more wars. Main concept: reduce MIDEAST WARS by reducing dependence on MIDEAST OIL. This is idiotic, since the MIDEAST has the largest reserves of oil, we will always need to fight wars as long as we need oil. We can't just reduce the MIDEAST portion.

Obama has a plan, it is on his website. Hill has a plan, too. The central concept of both plans is oil usage reduction, not war reduction. Obama frames the oil reduction as offsetting Mideast Oil. BF and D. It helps sell the idea, the basic concept is still the same as Hill's, reduce dependence on oil. If the media, and a large portion of the electorate, weren't consummate tools, this wouldn't be necessary, but they are, so it is.

Hillbots, can't you give it rest, ever?


Posted by: says you on May 5, 2008 at 9:39 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,
You don't read your own blog. I posted Obama's position.

Posted by: Don Bacon on May 6, 2008 at 1:44 AM | PERMALINK

Bob G

Liquid metal reactors have been around since year dot.

In theory they are better than the pressurised water reactors we primarily use-- higher thermal efficiency and less rad waste. We only went with PWR because the US Navy under Admiral Rickover had perfected them for submarine propulsion already, and the AEC was in a hurry to get civilian reactors up and running.

In practice, they are hard to execute and we have 50 years of engineering experience on large scale PWR, which we cannot duplicate in a hurry on another technology. And liquid metal has its own problems: in the presence of oxygen you can have a very nasty fire.

Nuclear is an incremental technology. Large leaps are not rewarded, because the characteristics of materials and controls in a reactor vessel, running for decades, are not predictable in advance. The science is basic, but the technology is the product of huge learning by doing.

The Indians, who have lots of thorium but no uranium, are doing the work, but not AFAIK in a liquid metal context, but a PWR context: using a thorium-uranium fuel.

We will, for the forseeable future (at least before 2030) be using PWR reactors (and their cousins, the Boiling Water Reactors produced by GE). The Brits have abandoned the AGR (Advanced Gas Reactor-- gas cooled) even though it was thermally more efficient than its US equivalent

www.antipope.org/charlie/rant/torness.html

We may eventually have liquid metal fast breeder reactors (plutonium fuel). But the proliferation and safety issues are intense.

Posted by: Valuethinker on May 6, 2008 at 5:14 AM | PERMALINK

Hillary plans to develop a car that runs on snake oil.

Posted by: Kvetch on May 6, 2008 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

As a benchmark, US oil consumption dropped by OVER 20% between 1978 and 1983 when the CAFE standards went into effect along with conservation and fuel switching technology. The time line is not unreasonable.

Posted by: bakho on May 6, 2008 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

Ron,

If we do nothing the peak oil nuts will be proven right.

If the 'nuts' are right are they still nuts?

SecularAnimist,

The SCiB does sound promising, although I have a couple concerns with it. First is how expensive in terms of energy is it to produce the nanofibers that make this battery possible? Second is how well does it scale up? A battery big enough for an electric car or (bigger yet) home storage of solar is many times the size of a laptop battery.

Compressed air in underground caverns to store electrical energy seems very similar to the idea of pumping water into a water tower or mountain reservoir and then generating electricity from it falling back down. The technology is very mature but how many places are suitable for that?

For better or worse we need to store huge amounts of electricity and ideally that would be pretty close to where it is generated.

Scalability seems to be a problem with all these ideas.

Posted by: Tripp on May 6, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

bakho,

As a benchmark, US oil consumption dropped by OVER 20% between 1978 and 1983 when the CAFE standards went into effect along with conservation and fuel switching technology. The time line is not unreasonable.

I lived through that. I think a severe recession accounted for much of the reduction. At the time the US was using massive amounts of energy for mineral extraction, refining, and industrial manufacturing.

Cafe and conservation and 55MPH speed limit didn't produce the 25% drop.

Posted by: Tripp on May 6, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Doc,

I believe 2030 is when the most optimistic forecast is for peak oil

Thank goodness it is so far away. The price of oil shooting up sixfold is bad enough. I don't think we could take peak oil right now.

If these are the molehills I don't want to see the mountains.

Posted by: Tripp on May 6, 2008 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

So...voting for the BS means you're comfortable with being lied to as long as you know you're being lied to.

It's all one big nod-nod, wink-wink, game as long as everyone knows it.

Very inspiring.

Posted by: Zane Safrit on May 6, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

"I believe 2030 is when the most optimistic forecast is for peak oil

Thank goodness it is so far away. The price of oil shooting up sixfold is bad enough. I don't think we could take peak oil right now."

Unfortunately, one of the most respected Peak Oil organizations, ASPO, has a recent revision of its findings that peak oil occurred in 2007.

Posted by: bruce from cumberland on May 6, 2008 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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