Pyramid Comment

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Myths About Petrol, Gaddafi And Nuclear Power

This is not original

Gasoline prices have been steadily climbing for several months, and Americans are feeling the pain at the pump. The possible culprits (from greedy oil execs to Mideast turmoil) are as plentiful as the proposed solutions (more offshore drilling, green energy or government reserves). But what is really driving prices up? And what, if anything, can be done about it? Let’s take a moment to fill up on information about our fuel.

1. Fighting in Libya is sending gas prices higher.

Libya is not a big enough global oil supplier for the battles there to have a meaningful effect on gas prices. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Libya was a major U.S. supplier, selling us around 700,000 barrels of oil per day. But today, we import less than 50,000 barrels per day from Libya — a tiny fraction of the 9.2 million barrels per day the United States imported in 2010. Worldwide, the story is no different: Of the 86 million barrels consumed globally each day, less than 2 percent come from Moammar Gaddafi’s regime.

So why are gas prices up? Though Gaddafi’s fate is largely irrelevant to the oil market, unrest throughout the greater Middle East is not. The Persian Gulf region produces almost 24 million barrels of oil per day, more than 25 percent of global oil consumption. The Arab spring that has brought protests to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen makes markets nervous, and when markets fret over a possible disruption to oil supplies, gas prices rise — whether the disruption materializes or not.

2. Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) is a smart way to reduce gas prices.

The U.S. government maintains a 727 million-barrel oil reserve — 38 days’ worth at current levels of consumption - to protect against potential supply disruptions. But just about every time prices rise, politicians want to access the oil in the reserve to increase supply and bring prices back down. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), for instance, has been calling for oil releases from the SPR for more than a decade. In a letter to President Bill Clinton in 1999, he endorsed the release of several hundred thousand barrels a day from the SPR because, according to a news release about the letter, oil prices had made a “meteoric ascent to nearly $25 per barrel”. Had Clinton dipped into the reserve then, as Schumer requested, we almost certainly would have gotten a raw deal. What if that $25-per-barrel oil could be replenished only at $75 per barrel? Tapping the SPR makes the government an oil speculator, and any nation running record deficits that becomes a commodity trader is playing a dangerous game. The SPR exists to buy time in a true supply emergency. If we use it as a political tool to keep voters happy by stemming rising gas prices, we may be forced to buy back oil at even higher prices, or we may be left with an insufficient supply in a real crisis.

3. Oil companies produce less in the spring to make gas prices increase.

Almost every year, gasoline prices rise in the spring. At the same time, refineries produce less fuel. This is not because oil companies want to keep inventories low to drive prices higher. It’s because what’s in our gasoline (butane) changes from season to season. Butane is a cheap ingredient in gasoline that boils at low temperatures. In winter, this isn’t a problem. But in summer, butane evaporates from gas, polluting the air while leaving us with less fuel in the tank than we paid for. As temperatures rise, refineries replace butane with more costly ingredients and draw down winter inventories just as beach season begins.

Chemistry, not corporate conspiracy, limits supply

4. The Obama administration is driving up gas prices.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says EPA regulations are a “back-door national energy tax” that pushes prices up. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin says the White House drilling moratorium shows President Obama’s “culpability in the high gas prices hurting Americans.” Blaming the president for rising gas prices is nothing new, and it’s a bipartisan tactic. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) blamed President George W. Bush for higher gas prices and for continuing to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) as oil prices climbed.

Just one problem: even if domestic supplies were developed, American presidents couldn’t really control oil prices. The U.S. government has estimated that there are 18 billion barrels of oil in the outer continental shelf of the lower 48 states that are off limits to development. That may sound like a lot, but it is only about 2.5 years of supply for the United States, and it would take several years to allocate leases and drill exploratory wells. Even if the estimated 10 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were available for development, today’s policy decisions would have no impact on gasoline supplies for as much as a decade. Obama can’t dictate what you’ll pay for premium tomorrow.

5. Americans can’t live without cheap gas.

Yes, Americans love to drive, and Americans love cheap gas. But across an ocean, there’s a continent filled with people a lot like us who have lived with high gas prices for years. They’re called Europeans. While U.S. gasoline heads toward $4 per gallon, Europeans have been paying much higher prices for years because of high taxes on fuel. This month in Britain, gas hit 6 pounds, or about $9.76, per gallon. Because gas is so dear, Europe’s per capita energy use is half that of the United States, leaving Europe less vulnerable to oil price shocks yet not undermining its citizens’ standard of living. The United States, built on cheap oil, is much less densely populated than the Old World, with more wide-open spaces to traverse. But that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace some of the things that have helped Europeans keep their gasoline bills down. Such as high-speed rail, public transportation and green energy.

In fact, Americans have shown that they can adjust their behavior when faced with sticker shock at the pump. As gas prices rose from $2.31 per gallon in 2005 to $3.30 per gallon in 2008, sales of the Toyota Prius eclipsed those of the Ford Explorer, and public transit use reached a 50-year high. When it costs $30 to fill up a Geo Metro with regular, all options are on the table. Robert Rapier is the chief technology officer of Merica International, a privately-owned renewable energy company, and writes for Consumer Energy Report.

Like Sinatra, Moammar Gaddafi has always done things his way. When Egypt- and Tunis-style public protests failed to dislodge the Libyan leader, a full-scale rebellion erupted, only to be met with the uncompromising brutality so familiar to longtime Gaddafi observers. For now, Libya appears stalemated, with rebels controlling the eastern half of the country while regime loyalists dig in around Tripoli and the west. As the international community waits to see if, when and how Gaddafi might fall, let's topple a few misunderstandings about the mercurial leader.


1. Gaddafi is insane.

Gaddafi looks like a deranged dictator? Homicidal attacks on his own people? Wacky ideology? Try reading his incoherent ramblings in "The Green Book," a manifesto published in the 1970s. Bizarre public statements? Listen to his 90-minute tirade against the world before the U.N. General Assembly in 2009. Add to the mix his all-female Amazonian Guard security force and the Bedouin tent he pitches during trips to Rome, Paris and New York, and the evidence suggests that we're dealing with a crazy person. But Gaddafi could not have held on to power for such a long time in a country as divided as Libya without being a canny political operator. He has adapted over the years, adjusting his message to appeal to different constituents with pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism, anti-Westernism and an idiosyncratic take on socialism. He has used every means at his disposal to achieve his sole objective: staying in power. Libya's oil wealth enables Gaddafi to buy loyalty. When loyalty can't be bought, he uses intimidation and violence to extract it - witness, for example, the brutal suppression of student Islamists in eastern Libya in the 1990s. He has methodically removed his enemies, keeping the military weak, tribes divided and Islamic radicals fearing for their lives. He's kept his foes bickering instead of working together to unseat him. He's even manipulated his own children, stoking their rivalries to prevent any of them from becoming too powerful. Until last month, Gaddafi managed to control everything and everyone in his country while claiming that he had no official position within it. That's a crazy argument, but the man spouting it has been too successful to be dismissed as a madman.
2. Gaddafi will fight to the death.

After President Ronald Reagan called Gaddafi "the mad dog of the Middle East," many thought the dictator would die before stepping down. Though surrender won't come easily to the man who has vowed to oppose the Libyan rebellion "to the last drop of blood," Gaddafi's past suggests that he is capable of stepping back from the precipice. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi feared that his regime could be next. So he gave up his nuclear weapons program and paid compensation to the families of Lockerbie bombing victims in return for an end to U.S. trade sanctions. If he's given ground before, why not now? Arab media reports suggest that he hasn't ruled out stepping aside in exchange for immunity from prosecution and asylum abroad for himself and his family. Quiet retirement in Caracas or Harare cannot be dismissed as the rebels gain ground.
3. Foreign mercenaries keep Gaddafi in power.

It's not so straightforward. Fighters from neighboring Chad and Niger as well as Syria, Serbia and Ukraine have flocked to Gaddafi in his hour of need, but the Libyan leader's core support comes from domestic constituencies. These include special forces units commanded by his sons, formidable internal security and the fealty of his own tribal group, the Qadhadhfa. Some members of the more numerous Warfalla and Magariha tribes are also in his corner. And many of Libya's "foreigners" have lived there for many years. They came from Chad, Mali and Niger as far back as the 1970s to join Gaddafi's Islamic Legion, a militia group intent on securing Libyan control of North Africa, and became naturalized citizens long ago. Racism is also at play. Many Libyan natives resent the country's foreign nationals (around 500,000) out of a population of more than 6.5 million. Unrest offers an opportunity to settle scores against foreign workers by falsely accusing "black Africans" of committing atrocities on behalf of the regime.
4. A no-fly zone will finish Gaddafi.

Very unlikely. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior generals have balked at the cost and risks of destroying Libyan air defenses. In any case, the most significant attacks by the regime against the rebels haven't been mounted by warplanes, but by ground forces and helicopters capable of evading a no-fly zone. There's also an awkward diplomatic reality: Intervention would struggle to win support in NATO, where Turkey is opposed, or in the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia are likely to say no. And even if a no-fly zone would topple Gaddafi, why would President Obama want to establish one? Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are a big part of the debate about Libya. The United States is cautious, fearing another messy intervention in a Muslim country and wary of interfering in an organic, grass-roots rebellion in the Middle East. Unless Gaddafi begins using planes to inflict mass casualties, a no-fly zone may only level the playing field so that the two sides of Libya's civil war can fight more evenly - and Gaddafi isn't the underdog in that battle.
5. Remove Gaddafi, and Libya's problems are solved.

Gaddafi's rule has had one benefit: It has kept a divided country together. His exit would leave a power vacuum. Gaddafi did such a thorough job of eliminating his opposition that there is nothing - no party, no ideology, no clear successor - left to replace him. Politically, Libya is a blank slate.
The rebels are united by little beyond their hatred of Gaddafi. Secularists, monarchists and even former jihadists rub shoulders with one another in this fight. Tribal loyalties further complicate efforts to forge a common front. All the factions call for international action to oust Gaddafi, but they are divided on what form it should take. Only since the Interim National Council was set up in the rebel-held city of Benghazi on Feb. 26 has Gaddafi's opposition begun to coalesce. But these are early days. For almost a week, former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil battled with Benghazi-based lawyer Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga for leadership of the council. Jalil wasn't confirmed as its head until March 5. Even if Libya's rebels can achieve victory on the battlefield - a big "if" - the task of building a national movement in a divided society will prove even tougher.

6. The biggest problem with nuclear energy is safety.

Safety is certainly a critical issue, as the tragedy in Japan is making clear. But for years, the the biggest challenge to sustainable nuclear energy has not been safety, but cost. In the United States, new nuclear construction was already slowing down even before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979; the disaster merely sealed its fate. The last nuclear power plant to come online started delivering power in 1996, but its construction began in 1972. Today, nuclear power remains considerably more expensive than coal- or gas-fired electricity, mainly because nuclear plants are so expensive to build. Estimates are slippery, but a plant can cost well north of $5 billion. A 2009 MIT study estimated that the cost of producing nuclear energy (including construction, maintenance and fuel) was about 30 percent higher than that of coal or gas. Of course, cost and safety aren’t unrelated. Concerns about safety lead to extensive regulatory approval processes and add uncertainty to plant developers’ calculations. Both boost the price of financing new nuclear plants. It’s not clear how much these construction costs would fall if safety fears subsided and the financing became cheaper. And after the Fukushima catastrophe, we’re unlikely to find out.

7. Nuclear power plants are sitting ducks for terrorists.

It’s easy to get scared about terrorist attacks on nuclear plants. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a cottage industry sprung up around the threat, with analysts imagining ever-more horrific and creative ways that terrorists could strike nuclear facilities and unleash massive consequences. There are certainly real risks: Nuclear expert Matthew Bunn of Harvard University has pointed out that well-planned terrorist attacks probably would produce the sort of simultaneous failures in multiple backup systems that Japan’s reactors are experiencing. But it’s much harder to target a nuclear power plant than one might think, and terrorists would have great difficulty replicating the physical impact that the March 11 earthquake had on the Japanese plants. It also would be tough for them to breach the concrete domes and other barriers that surround U.S. reactors. And although attacks have been attempted in the past - most notoriously by Basque separatists in Spain in 1977 - none has resulted in widespread damage. Certainly, the water pools in which reactors store used fuel, which reside outside the containment domes, are more vulnerable than the reactors and could cause real damage if attacked; there is a debate between analysts and industry about whether terrorists could effectively target them.

8. Democrats oppose nuclear energy; Republicans favor it.

Yes, the GOP base is enthusiastic about nuclear energy, while the Democratic base is skeptical. Moreover, many Republican politicians support assistance to the industry such as loan guarantees for nuclear developers, while many Democrats oppose them. But the politics of nuclear power have changed in recent years, mainly because of climate change. Democrats, including many supporters in the environmental movement, have become more open to nuclear power as a large-scale zero-emissions energy option. Steven Chu, President Obama’s energy secretary, has been enthusiastic about the nuclear option. When asked to compare coal and nuclear energy in 2009, Chu responded: “I’d rather be living near a nuclear power plant.” The biggest prospective boost for nuclear power in the past two years was an initiative championed by Democrats and scorned by Republicans: cap-and-trade legislation. Cap-and-trade would have penalized polluting power sources such as coal and gas emitters, thus tilting the playing field toward nuclear power. Department of Energy simulations of the ill-fated Waxman-Markey climate bill projected that it would have increased nuclear power generation by 74 percent in 2030.

Yet although Democrats may have become more accepting of nuclear power, few became fully enthusiastic. Japan’s tragedy may make many reconsider their stance.

9. Nuclear power is the key to energy independence.

When people talk about energy independence, they’re thinking about oil, which we mostly use in vehicles and industrial production. When they talk about nuclear, though, they’re thinking about electricity. More nuclear power means less coal, less natural gas, less hydroelectric power and less wind energy. But unless we start putting nuclear power plants in our cars and semis, more nuclear won’t mean less oil. This was not always the case: During the the heyday of nuclear power, the early 1970s (45 plants broke ground between 1970 and 1975), oil was a big electricity source, and boosting nuclear power was a real way to squeeze petroleum out of the economy. Alas, we’ve already replaced pretty much all the petroleum in the power sector; the opportunity to substitute oil with nuclear power is gone.

10. Better technology can make nuclear power safe.

Technology can increase safety, but there will always be risks with nuclear power. The Japanese reactors at the center of the current crisis use old technology that increased their vulnerability. Next-generation reactors will be “passively cooled”, which means that if backup power fails like it has in Japan, meltdowns will be avoided more easily. (Passive-cooling systems vary, but their common feature is a lack of dependence on external power.) Other lower-tech improvements, such as stronger containment structures, have also mitigated risk. But what happened in Japan reminds us that unanticipated vulnerabilities are inevitable in any highly complex system. Careful engineering can minimize the chance of disasters, but it can’t eliminate them. Operators and authorities will need to make sure that they’re prepared to deal with unanticipated failures even as they work to prevent them. Most energy sources entail risks. In the past year, we have seen an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fatal explosions at the Upper Big Branch coal mine  in West Virginia and now the crisis in Japan. The American public will need to decide whether the risks of nuclear power compared with those of other energy sources... are too high.