January 16, 2006
Oil Seen As Toothless Political Weapon

US policy in the Middle East is seen as based on a fallacy about the power of oil producers.

U.S. policy in the Middle East is driven by baseless fears that an “oil weapon” can cut off our fuel supply, a Johns Hopkins researcher has concluded.

In a peer-reviewed journal article, Roger J. Stern argues that the decades-old belief that petroleum-rich Persian Gulf nations must be appeased to keep oil flowing is imaginary and the threat of deployment of an "oil weapon" is toothless. His review of economic and historical data also shows that untapped oil supplies are abundant, not scarce.

Stern’s analysis, titled “Oil market power and United States national security,” appears in the Jan. 16-20 online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the article Stern argues that the longstanding U.S. security concern that our oil supply could be threatened is wrong.

The real security problem, says Stern, comes from market power. Persian Gulf oil producers, he says, collude to command artificially high prices that could never exist in a competitive market. Excessive OPEC profits result, he says. These contribute to instability in the region, terror funding and the likelihood that a Persian Gulf superpower could emerge if one state captured the oil production of its neighbors. Because of these threats, the United States has concluded it must use military force to block state-on-state aggression in the region and to contain terrorism.

“U.S. appeasement of the oil market power not only helps create these problems, it makes them inevitable,” said Stern, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. “Why do we follow this schizophrenic policy? We do it because we believe the ‘oil weapon’ might be used to reduce our supply if we somehow offend the OPEC countries. My research shows the oil weapon is completely implausible.”

According to the journal article, recent history shows that attempts to use an oil weapon have consistently failed. The idea, Stern says, dates back to the mid-1930s, when the League of Nations considered cutting off oil to Italy as punishment for its aggression in Ethiopia. The league realized the oil weapon couldn’t work, however, because non-league nations could continue to supply Italy. Keeping oil out of Italy would have required a blockade, an idea dismissed as impossible to enforce. What was true for Italy then is true for the United States today, Stern says.

What I've never understood about Washington DC elites who swallow this fallacy is if they really do believe it then why not act on this belief in ways designed to decrease US reliance on oil? Tens of billions of dollars get spent by the US each year on weapons development. If the Middle Eastern oil producers really do possess such a potent weapon then why not respond with a national security policy in the same way the US would respond to any other threatening weapon and develop "weapons" in the form of technologies that would render oil essentially obsolete?

If we are going to act as if we believe this fallacy why not at least make our response to the fallacy productive of a useful end? We could develop cheaper and cleaner energy technologies a lot more rapidly if the national security types in Washington DC treated an end to the oil dependency as a big national security gain for the United States. The end of the dependence on oil and other fossil fuels by the development of cheaper non-fossil fuels energy technologies would provide both environmental gains (cleaner air) and economic gains (cheaper energy and not imported either). Funding of the research would be far less expensive than the Iraq war too.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 16 10:37 PM  Energy Policy

Jake said at January 17, 2006 6:51 AM:

Where Stern goes completely wrong in his thinking is his belief that middle east leaders are rational beings who make logical decisions. Those leaders are a minority. Many are insane with power lust or religious hatred. These insane leaders will use any weapon including the oil weapon and the nuclear bomb.

Stern's foreign policy of assuming the fetal position and sucking our thumb was the cause of WWII and 60 million dead. That is the lesson of history we must all remember.

michael vassar said at January 17, 2006 6:54 AM:

The main reason that US leaders don't fund R&D is that political types don't really deeply believe that R&D works. To them, scientists asking for money are just another interest group. They "believe" in science in exactly the same manner as they believe in religion, that is, they don't actually believe in a manner which shapes their behavior.

Richard said at January 17, 2006 7:59 AM:


kindly illuminate a foreign policy that was actually possible and would have avoided WWII had you been in power.

Kurt said at January 17, 2006 8:36 AM:

We maintain our current energy and middle-eastern politics because our entire middle-eastern foreign policy and the money that we pour into the region is a direct subsidy to the oil industry. The oil industry does not pay for the foreign aid and military presence in the region, the U.S. tax payer does. I believe Randall did the calculation in the late 90's when both the oil was cheap AND we were spend much less money in the region (there was no Iraq war then) and determined that we were paying $60 billion per year for $10 billion worth of oil. Today, that $10 billion worth of oil is probably around $50 billion, but we are pouring $150-200 billion per year into Iraq. This makes no sense from an economic standpoint. If the oil companies had to pay this themselves, we would import no oil from the region.

So, think of the entire cost of of our interventionist foreign policy in the middle-east as being a direct subsidy to the oil industry.

Jake said at January 17, 2006 8:37 AM:

Tremendous sums have flowed into energy research since the oil embargo of 1972. Much of it has been private which is far more effective than government sponsored research.

Astounding advances has been made in certain areas of energy production.

1. Nuclear reactors are now much smaller, efficient and safer than ever before. France has been a leader is this field with 80% of electricity coming from nuclear power. However, that research is all for naught as the left will not allow any plants to be built in the US.

2. Drilling technology has made giants strides forward especially in the 1990s. Drilling can be done on a 5 acre footprint but can reach oil pools two miles away in any direction. However, the left has locked up vast oil fields in the US preferring that we depend on Arab oil.

3. Both Denmark and Germany have put billions into windpower and proved that wind can never be a major power source. The variability of the wind makes it an unreliable energy source and thus requires backup power plants running in reserve at all times. Germany has given up on windpower and has put a billion dollars into research to determine what type of nuclear reactor to build. In the US, the left has blocked the construction of all new large wind farms.

4. Solar power has gone nowhere with over 30 years of heavy research in that field. We know now that it will always be an unreliable power source because of the weather.

No it is not the lack of research that is causing an energy shortage. Our energy shortage is caused by a political party that blocks all solutions to our energy problems. Energy solutions will not be found in the laboratory it will be found at the ballot box.

Jake said at January 17, 2006 8:57 AM:


Churchill covered this subject very well in his book "The Second World War." After all, Churchill calls WWII the unnecessary war. He advocated the allies clamping down or using military force on Germany when they started their illegal arms buildup in the early 1930s. Instead the allies looked the other way as Germany built the largest military in the world.

A recent book by the Japanese commander of the Pearl Harbor attack stated that if the American navy was as large as the Japanese Navy, the Japanese would not have attacked the US. Our navy at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack was less than half the size of Japan's. Our army was the 20th largest army in the world being the same size as Portugal's.

He also said that the Japanese leaders thought the Americans were cowards for allowing Germany to illegally build up its military. Our perceived cowardice lead the Japanese to believe we would never retaliate for the Pearl Harbor attack.

Richard said at January 17, 2006 9:55 AM:


Churchill is correct. In fact Luxembourg could probably have stopped Germany before the Rhineland remilitarization. That was not our problem. We had not been involved in Europe since Wilson and our stupid WWI adventure was a cause. Boy that was a brilliant example of not sucking our thumb.

Of course a book by a defeated leader is self serving. That the Japanese took the wrong lesson in history is unfortunate, but cautionary.

I take the tone of your posts that we should not take any guff from those SOBs. So do you want to go get those Mullahs. Have you noticed their tone whenever we make these noises is "yeah, you and what army," cause if we go for it, what's left of ours will be broken.

Of course, if all the keyboard warriors sign up, we could have enough troops to blanket Asia. I am not holding my breath.

Richard said at January 17, 2006 9:56 AM:

Should read since Wilson and our stupid WWI adventure was a cause of WWII.


odograph said at January 17, 2006 10:12 AM:

What, we have to pretend the world energy markets are not competetive, in order to believe a crimp in world supply would not cause economic shocks?

That's BS. If there was easy and extra supply, we'd be at $20/bbl right now.

Kurt said at January 17, 2006 10:24 AM:

Yes, WWI was the cause of WWII. Hense, any discussion of WWII without discussing WWI is completely meaningless. WWI has got to be the dumbest conflict in human history and there was absolutely no reason for the U.S. to involve itself in what was a stupid European tribal conflict. The problem was Wilson. Wilson was an idiot, and a racist to boot (he fired all of the African-American people who were then employees of the federal government), who obviously bought into this "missionary" interventionist foreign policy stuff hook, line, and sinker. Fighting WWI did not lead to the nirvana that Wilson believed in and the result was WWII (which WAS a necessary war, by the way).

My point is that we have a history of having a "missionary" foreign policy leading back to the Spanish-American war, which has had an agenda completely independent of saving the world from Nazism, Communism, Islamofascistism, or whatever threat happens to be in vogue at the time. It has always been my opinion that our "missionary" foreign policy has made many of these problems worse than if we did not have it in the first place.

Those of you who doubt me on this should spend time reading some of the "conservative" (read facist websites) out there. There are many "neo-cons" who believe that having an enemy is a good thing, because it forces people to seek "common identity and cause" with each other who, otherwise, would not have anything to do with each other. It is this use of foreign policy and war to promote domestic social agenda that I veheminently reject. This is plain fascism, pure and simple. The "neocons" are more appropriately called "neonazicons".

Randall Parker said at January 17, 2006 6:24 PM:


I accidentally deleted legitimate comments while cleaning out some spam. I have sent emails to all the commenters including your post text so you could make it again. But if you did not use a valid email address and need the text of your comment then send me an email to ask for it. Sorry about that but I make occasional mistakes and hit friendlies in the war I fight with spam.

Randall Parker said at January 17, 2006 6:27 PM:


It doesn't matter how rational most Middle Eastern leaders are. However, I see most of the oil country leaders as profit maximizers. They avoid shutting off the oil spigots unless they think doing so will increase their profits.

As for the potency of the weapon: So why haven't they used it effectively yet? Why haven't they used it since 1973?

I think oil is going to become scarcer. But cutting off sales just decreases profits.

Also, selective embargoes will have no effect because buyers who are embargoed can just pay a little more to buy from non-Middle Eastern sources that currently sell to countries that would not be embargoed.

BTW, In their book Oil & War Goralski and Freeburg said the US produced 60% of the oil produced during WWII. But I suspect the capacity of US steel mills to out-produce Germany and Japan combined played an even bigger role in ensuring allied victory. Plus, the USSR supplied more soldiers than the Germans and eventually outdid the Germans in production as well if memory serves. Germany lost because its economy wasn't big enough as compared to the allies.

You are wrong a few ways here:

4. Solar power has gone nowhere with over 30 years of heavy research in that field. We know now that it will always be an unreliable power source because of the weather.

First off, the research has not been "heavy". Solar gets a small fraction of what nuclear gets in US federal research dollars.

Second, solar has gone somewhere. It has gotten cheaper by an order of magnitude or two (I'm too lazy to Google up a chart), just not cheap enough.

Third, reliability doesn't have to be high if it becomes cheap enough. Solar during the day could reduce fossil fuels burning during the day for example. One could use solar to super cool some liquid and then use the liquid into the night to keep a house cool during hot summer nights. Water pumps for crops and for aqueducts could run when the sun shines.

Fourth, we will develop better energy storage technologies to allow energy generated when the sun shines and wind blows to get shifted to other times.

Sixth, nanotech advances will make it much cheaper to make photovoltaic cells in the future. Photovoltaics will become cheap enough. It is a matter of when. I prefer it happen sooner rather than later because I want a cleaner environment and lower energy prices and also for less money to flow to the Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

James Bowery said at January 17, 2006 8:21 PM:

It will be informative to see if this strikes Randall as "spam" but clearly any time we have demonstration that major government investments in energy technology have been diverted into meaninglessness, it is a clue that the technology prize approach is profoundly superior as a public policy tactic for technology development.

The following link has such prize award legislation for fusion.


It also quotes one of the founders of the US fusion energy program, Robert W. Bussard as saying (in support of the legislation):

The DoE committment to very large fusion concepts (the giant magnetic tokamak) ensures only the need for very large budgets; and that is what the program has been about for the past 15 years - a defense-of-budget program - not a fusion-achievement program. As one of three people who created this program in the early 1970's (when I was an Asst. Dir. of the AEC's Controlled Thermonuclear Reaction Division) I know this to be true; we raised the budget in order to take 20% off the top of the larger funding, to try all of the hopeful new things that the mainline labs would not try.

Each of us left soon thereafter, and the second generation management thought the big program was real; it was not. Ever since then, the ERDA/DoE has rolled Congress to increase and/or continue big-budget support. This worked so long as various Democratic Senators and Congressmen could see the funding as helpful in their districts. But fear of undermining their budget position also made DoE bureaucrats very autocratic and resistant to any kind of new approach, whether inside DoE or out in industry. This led DoE to fight industry wherever a non-DoE hopful new idea appeared.

GEN said at January 17, 2006 9:28 PM:

While I usually just lurk here, I have to chime in. The reality is far different from what is being bandied about.

What has to be realized is that the power structure decided a long time ago that cheap oil out of the Middle East was the route to go. This was a deliberate conscious choice. Regardless of shocks, we have had relatively cheap reliable oil though not absolutely the cheapest. Then there is the strategic component.

If you haven't sat in these meetings you would think we [the US] are crazy but we aren't.

This 50-yr policy is an underpinning of strategic force deployment. All projections of force worldwide require energy. By having a focus of oil producing nations, conquest of such nations by holding key areas, provides an energy base for worldwide force deployment. I won't name the retired Admiral, but he has conquered the world 3 times in simulation by taking the Middle East first.

This 50-yr policy has in point of fact prevented a nuclear Middle East up to this point by focusing the Arabs on oil and a single-product economy. It also makes it quite easy to identify and take out anyone who wants to go nuclear. An oil-rich country has NO need of nuclear power. Iran's present leadership will be taken out.

Lastly, the concentration of wealth in the Arab power structure ultimately means that it can be seized in the last resort.

These strategic considerations outweigh any and all other considerations and IS the governing policy behind all our actions in the region.

James Bowery said at January 17, 2006 11:27 PM:

That's all well and good but it doesn't address the question: Why does the US want to be dependent on oil when simply changing public energy funding from R&D investment in proposed technologies to prize awards for accomplished technical objectives could make middle east oil irrelevant?

You should have war simulations where one nation captures the middle east and the other nation develops an internal combustion p-B11 engine.

Invisible Scientist said at January 17, 2006 11:34 PM:

Although I agree with what you are saying, delaying the development of alternative energy sources, and choosing to flood the Middle East with dollars instead, just for the purpose of making the Muslims not develop nuclear energy, is a rather inefficient way of keeping the world safe. If we had developed the liquid metal integral fast breeder reactor (which not only burns all the long term waste as it own fuel but it also requires only 1 % of the uranium as a result), and many wonderful feasible technologies (this is STILL not too late), then the United States would have once again achieved world leadership, and also bring prosperity to all of the world in the process.

Also, since other rival superpowers are going to gain more strength in the Far East, the United States will also face more difficulties since the Middle Eastern adversaries such as Iran, will also turn to these strategic competitors from the Far East...

Richard said at January 18, 2006 4:19 AM:

"WWII (which WAS a necessary war, by the way)."

Not proven.

odograph said at January 18, 2006 7:03 AM:

"cutting off sales just decreases profits."

Remember "Hotelling" ... the idea that if you think your resource is going to become more valuable(*), you can actually maximize profits (over time) by delaying sales.

It stikes me that there are valid economic reasons for a country like Iran, even subracting out every political motive, to slow down on sales. Hotelling.

* - actually the resource has to increase in value faster than other possible investments, interest rates, etc.

bigelow said at January 18, 2006 9:03 AM:

"His review of economic and
historical data also shows that untapped oil supplies are abundant,
not scarce.
…said Stern, a doctoral student in the Department
of Geography and Environmental Engineering."

--Another ‘expert' heard from.

Kurt said at January 18, 2006 9:29 AM:


WWII was definitely necessary. I have a friend who is reading some unpublished stuff by Hitler (following Mein Kampf) where he makes it very clear that he considered the U.S. to be the ultimate enemy and threat to the German Reich. When my friend finishes reading this, he will send it to me, and I will have more to say.

Hitler considered America a threat because we were a dynamic society that had attracted many German immigrants. Since he believed that the Aryans were the "superior" race, he believed that the large numbers of German people in the U.S. made the U.S. a powerful society that was, by vertue of that, the main long term competitor to a greater Germanic Reich. As such, he considered war with the U.S. inevitable, although he wanted to get and consolidate Europe (and Russia) first before going after the U.S.

Japan was never a real threat against America. They attacked Pearl Harbor, thinking that it would discourage the U.S. from intervening in Asian affairs, so that they could get on with building their "East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere".

I make these points about WWII, even though I'm as much of an isolationist as one can be.

I still maintain that it was the outcome of WWI that contributed directly to the rise of Nazism and WWII.

Alan Njeru said at January 18, 2006 10:36 AM:

As for the potency of the weapon: So why haven't they used it effectively yet? Why haven't they used it since 1973?

As respective populations in Middle East countires increase (and thus decreasing GDPs) this region has found itself ever more reliant on oil (and high oil prices) and thus cannot afford to do anything stupid - use or misuse oil as a weapon especially without reasonable justification.

odograph said at January 18, 2006 10:56 AM:

I'd also ask why you don't consider selling the oil, and using it to develop their economies (and military) "using it?"

I mean, the iran/iraq war was certainly paid for by the "oil weapon."

Kelly Parks said at January 18, 2006 1:18 PM:

What a ridiculous strawman argument. Our current foreign policy is based on the Middle East's other major export: terrorism. Do you think if 9/11 had been engineered by Tamil Tigers or Chechen seperatists or some other group from a region with no oil that out response wouldn't have been as vigorous?

This whole "study" is the classic strawman. First state something like, "My opponent believes X. Now let me show why X is wrong." When in fact your opponent doesn't believe X at all.

K said at January 18, 2006 3:03 PM:

Jake may be correct in his quotes about the US being militarily weak before WW2. But the conclusions are mistaken. Our possession of another 1000 bombers, or 10 battleships or carriers, or 200,000 equipped troops on 12/7/1941 would have changed the war very little.

Roosevelt had correctly foreseen that WW2 would be a war of resources. While others were putting a uniform on every man and building planes and ships we were constucting defense plants and planning a tremendous buildup as soon as the war started. The Japanese were well aware of our steady manufacturing buildup and arming in the Philipines, Wake Island, Midway, and in Hawaii. We were aiding Britain and China openly.

It was not our apparent weakness that forced the issue. It was our embargo of oil to Japan which was supported by all other source nations. Japan had so significant oil and no way to secure any except by war. Their fleet would soon be worthless without it and their army useful only on the Asian mainland.

Even so, the Japanese military did a great job in the field. But ultimately resources prevailed.

tdean said at January 18, 2006 11:48 PM:

Jake: " Drilling technology has made giants strides forward especially in the 1990s. Drilling can be done on a 5 acre footprint but can reach oil pools two miles away in any direction. However, the left has locked up vast oil fields in the US preferring that we depend on Arab oil."

What an outrageously ignorant statement. I have been developing and working with horizontal drilling and related technologies since before 1990 and it has been used far more extensively in the US than any other country, yet petroleum production has gone down steadily since 1970, just as King Hubbert said it would. At this point, no amount of technology or money will reverse the trend. The only thing constraining drilling today is the availability of rigs, people and equipment, not places to drill. I challenge you to name one “vast field” that the left has “locked up”. If there were no limits on drilling anywhere in the US, production would still decline at a barely noticeably slower rate. Let’s look at some actual facts rather than nonsensical blathering. http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2004/html/table_04_01.html

We see the decline of US production, the increase in consumption, mainly in transportation, and the massive increase of imports over the period since 1970. Now which party is responsible for that? Republicans were in the White House 2/3 of the time over that period. Is it the fault of the EPA? That was created by Nixon’s signature. The Clean Air Act? – Nixon. Clean Water Act? – Nixon. And Nixon wasn’t just signing bills rammed down his throat by tree hugging Democrats. He called for a strong agency (http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/epa/15c.htm) . And given that air pollution still causes the early deaths of the equivalent of a 747 crash every week, the EPA is probably Nixon's greatest positive legacy.

Now note that the percentage of US production used by transportation went from 69% in 1970 to 169% in 2003. Most of the increase in our dependency on imported oil comes from the transportation sector and you can thank the Republicans for killing meaningful vehicle efficiency standards proposed dozens of times by Democrats in order to do the bidding of their big business and big oil financiers. Unrestricted SUVs made huge profits and guzzled beaucoup gas. Great for the big contributors on K Street, bad for the nation.

Probably the most significant breakthrough in energy efficiency was developed at a government research laboratory. The direct carbon fuel cell can leap to nearly 80% efficiency for fossil fuel power plants and eliminate CO2 releases to the atmosphere. Still, non-defense research is being cut by the Republicans to finance the takeover of the country with the second largest oil reserves. That would be Iraq.

Richard said at January 19, 2006 4:20 AM:


A friend reading something hardly proves anything,

Hitler, if he had won would have had to digest his meal and would have been no threat to anyone. He would have had no fleet. At most, he could only hope to remain standing at the end.

We pushed Japan into attacking us because our leaders wanted to be in the war. Japan was devouring herself in China.

bobsnodgrass said at January 19, 2006 1:30 PM:

I liked this discussion and wanted to read the actual paper. I went the PNAS website and found no sign of the Stern paper, even on the 19th. Maybe it will appear in a few days. As a physician, I find that summaries of “hot medical articles” in the press are often seriously distorted. A December press release claimed that 2 papers in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported “good news” about the safety and efficacy of antidepressants”. This was picked up by several blogs. The text of the papers wasn’t available, even on line, until 9 days later. When I read them and noted that they brought little in the way of new information, the blog that I wanted to post to wouldn’t take any more comments- no longer timely. They had many comments (more than 40) where people just bellowed from their subconscious mind. Maybe this applies to petroleum and the Middle East. Shouldn’t we read the paper before accepting or denouncing it?

Oil has been a curse for many oil producing countries- the relatively easy wealth it provides and the effects on a country’s currency discourage investment in other areas. Oil money often flows directly from Big Oil to The Big Man (Economist article 12/20/2005). Governments have little need to raise money by taxation, and those countries typically have poor infrastructure, poor human rights and much higher risk of civil war than their resource-poor neighbors.
In this case,
1. Let’s see what the article says
2. Shouldn’t we factor in climate change? The faster we burn our fossil fuels, the more problems we’ll have
3. If you look at the US Dept of energy oil production web site, you’ll find some very questionable assumptions from the most recent (July 2005) posting: they assume that oil production will increase by 40% more in Saudi Arabia, will increase in Mexico, whose production is falling, and that Middle Eastern OPEC production will reach 36 million barrels/day by 2025 with the US holding at 9 million barrels/day. Total North American oil production peaked in 1985 at 15 million barrels/day- to predict that US + Canada + Mexico will produce 16 million barrels/day in 2025 is extremely optimistic.
I don’t know whether world oil production will peak in the next few years, but US, UK & Norwegian oil production has already peaked and many good people think that world output will peak soon. The least that the government could do is to provide 2 estimates labeled optimistic and pessimistic. I’m afraid that government policy dictates certain predictions, just as government science panels dodged the climate change issue.
4. There are some good things about nuclear power, but when you look at how the administration has botched up the Medicare drug plan, do you really believe that our government will take proper care of highly radioactive waste and protect generations to come? Notice also that not one gram of radioactive waste has gotten into Yucca Flat yet. I’m not talking only of Bush- Clinton energy policy was also too friendly to big Oil IMHO. Clinton and Brezinski were responsible for construction of the BTC pipeline.
Shouldn’t blogs encourage reading the actual essays and data?

Robert Hume said at January 19, 2006 1:31 PM:

It's been clear forever that there is a world market in oil. Oil and money are fungible. So if the Muslims want money they have to sell to someone. Suppose they refuse to sell to the US. That frees up other sources for the US to buy. So it doesn't matter if Islamists own the oil, from an oil supply point of view.

Of course, we may want to deny Islamists the oil so that they cannot build atom bombs, etc.

But all in all, our deployment of the military to the Middle East has not been to preserve oil, but to protect Israel.

tdean said at January 19, 2006 3:45 PM:

Kelly: "Do you think if 9/11 had been engineered by Tamil Tigers or Chechen seperatists or some other group from a region with no oil that out response wouldn't have been as vigorous?"

In 1997 when the neo-cons were only a strange fringe group with a "think tank", they harrangued Clinton to attack Iraq. 9/11 was only a convenient excuse that showed up at the right time that allowed the Bush Administration to do what it was planning to do anyhow. The very first cabinet meeting of the Bush administration in 2000 was about going after Iraq complete with the CIA laying down incredibly ambiguous evidence of the supposed threat of Saddam. Read about it in "The Price of Loyalty". It would be comical were it not for the 2000+ brave soldiers who had to die for the ridiculous dreams of empire of the sick neocons now in charge of our foreign policy. Read it and weep at http://www.newamericancentury.org/iraqmiddleeast2000-1997.htm

You have been duped into thinking that Iraq has something to do with 9/11.

jimcrack said at January 19, 2006 4:07 PM:

The debate over this blog is whether the US and other oil consumers have the foresight and wherewithal to PROVE whether we can stand down OPEC blackmail. You won't know until you try.

My analysis of the situation in Iraq over the last 30 years has turned up some surprising conclusions.

* Despite the Iraq-Iran war, and the throttling of oil investments to Iran, petrol availability went up while the price dropped to the lowest in a decade.

* The USSR made much money suupplying Iraq with armaments and machinery. But the global recession nearly throttled them too. In 1983, Soviet currency reserves dropped to less than $500 mil (the equivalent to your checking account). They never recovered. USSR subsequently defaulted on their debt for the first time in post-Lenin history: 4 days later Gorbachev was overthrown. This crack within the other superpower would have intensified much more quickly, had we shut down Soviet-Saddam trade, particularly as a condition for Saddam receiving US support.

Why is this relevant? Because virtually all military analysts believed that Brezhnev, not mid-east fanatics, would blackmail the West by closing the Persian Gulf with his growing blue-water fleet. Fortunately, US military will and technology stopped that at about the time Iran was spinning out of control. Had Carter been reelected, can we have been so sure this would have been the case?

* Meanwhile, LNG has always been a significant offset against gulf petrol. In 1970, the cost per btu was equivalent to coal. On any given day, Saudi flares off enough gas to supply the day's energy used in the UK! It is interesting that Saudi spent $30 bil in ten years on the Jubail Pipeline to send oil away from the Persian Gulf and harms way into the Red Sea, but not a penny to send natural gas there. Qatar and other small neighbors finally realize they are running out of oil and need LNG recovery. But Saudi was insufficiently pursuaded to do the same, despite all our help at propping up Saddam against Khomenei. A proper LNG policy of importation in Europe and the US might have ended OPEC as we know it.

*The US has been more aggressive in calling military conflicts than most people realize. We tend only to remember Viet Nam and Bay of Pigs: But Eisenhower ended the Korean War by threatening possible nuclear warfare; He cut Britain off from credit because of the Suez Crisis. Nixon may have held more than a dozen nuclear alerts, and it was undoubtedly his role in embargoing arms to Israel that led to their loss in The Yom Kippur War.

This makes the April Glaspie affair in the first gulf war so tragic. There was absolutely no basis for "negotiating" Saddam's greivances in Kuwait. He had no claim of territory by history or international law (see Yergin "The Prize"). The idea that the declining price of oil forced his hand is ludicrous: It was the end of the Iraq-Iran War and prospective decline of outside loans that spooked him. Indeed, Saddam was the sort to stir the pot just to stir the pot. He meets the definition of a terrorist. Therefore, a well-placed threat to get rid of him would have kept him in his place.

After the mess we experienced in Iraq, it's refreshing to know that our "oil-trading partners" have been exposed to a realism they deserve and which is long overdue. As for the blackmailers in Iran, it's time to set up a new oil corporation in Iraq around a series of protected zones, to triple oil production and replace Iranian oil on the world market. The louses in Iran deserve no quarter.

Richard said at January 19, 2006 4:08 PM:

"Oil has been a curse for many oil producing countries- the relatively easy wealth it provides and the effects on a country’s currency discourage investment in other areas."

Think Spain and the new world gold.

Plus ca change

Randall Parker said at January 19, 2006 4:39 PM:


If the Saudis only flame enough natural gas to run the UK then the Saudis do not produce all that much natural gas.

As for throttling of investments: Investments in oil extraction have been made all over the world and we are still faced with much higher oil prices. The market is telling us something: There's not enough oil.

The Saudis once had lots of excess oil production capacity. So they could flood the market, drive down prices, and cause huge damage to the Soviet Union. That was then. That was once upon a time. That is not now. You can't go back and cite past events as an indication of what is possible now. Conditions have changed. Oil demand has greatly increased and oil reserves have declined. More countries have reached their Hubbert's Peaks and more will join the list in coming years.

We are reaching an end to the oil era. I'm expecting to see a big transition toward coal, oil tar sands, and shale. I'd rather make a transition to cleaner nuclear and solar. I'd rather avoid the particulates, mercury, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, and other pollutants. I'd rather we develop cheaper technologies that are cleaner to boot.

jimcrack said at January 19, 2006 9:17 PM:


It IS a lot of natural gas in Saudi, if at any given time you can put 5-10 % more energy into a given market than a blackmailer wants. The 1973 embargo was precisely about that much energy. Spot markets are very powerful. We better survive that scenario today because there are more sources of petroleum (the share of Persian Gulf petrol in the US is declining more rapidly than US domestic is as a share of our consumption), heavy investment stakes by the oil producers in the US (dry up the oil and bankrupt yourself, which Saudi also learned in the 70's)and we also accomodated to rising gas prices since 2000 in ways that Nixon-Ford could not have foreseen (the idea then was price controls, monetization, and embargo exports of soybeans and Alaskan oil). The fact that the Pentagon is the world's largest service industry also helps. If the budget were tallied against imports, the balance of trade would balance! (pick up Chalmers Johnson's most recent book for more on the US garrison for oil)

To my knowledge, the Saudis never specifically flooded the market for oil (reported efforts to do so to 'stabilize' prices were pathetic and insignificant), and never did so to implode the Soviet Union (the opposite model prevailed: the USSR attracted much investment in gas that was unwarranted and beyond OPEC control, as gas prices plummetted and its finances deteriorated. The attitude today in Russia is let's stiff western investors and wait for the highest prices for petroleum. Depleting oil or not, the free market sees facts differently from an egoist).

I agree we must have better technology. But I am alarmed that there is no consensus on how much of it should be developed on spec. Is it worth 1% of GNP to invest in renewable energy that is 4X more expensive than market? 5%? 10? How does that relate to national security or war prevention?

Meanwhile, we have many real enemies that simply do not think as we do.

peter Andonian said at January 19, 2006 9:27 PM:

It is interesting how everyone assumes we are in control of the response in the middle east, as if we alter our energy policy or other policies people there will change their behavior in a beneficial way. People are critical of the evil "Neo Cons" for assuming that everything revolves around the US, then make arguments with the same underlying assumption! Do any of you think we really are in control of how mullahs in Iran are going to act? Also, Our actions in the middle east are only tangentially related to oil. Or maybe some of you brilliant Bush critics think the whole WOT and Iraq war are just a way for Bush to enrich his oil buddies. Maybe they will give him a golf club membership when he gets out of office as a prize. Do any of you really think a president, a man at the peak of the world power structure, is driven by the concerns of executives at Shell or Exxon? Give me a break.

K said at January 19, 2006 11:37 PM:

Solar and nuclear are the way, probably the only way, to solve the energy problems. Randall correctly points out that coal, oil shale and sands, biomass, and even LNG continue the problems of pollution, land destruction, and greenhouse gas production. And LNG continues the politcal problem of getting it here. Wind and water simply don't have the potential.

Randall didn't mention the other merits of solar and nuclear. They are the only methods helpful to almost any country. Most nations have no significant coal, oil - liquid, tars, sands - or natural gas. And they do not have great amounts of well watered, fertile land for biomass. We should advance methods that help all nations reduce their need for fossil and synthetic carbon fuels.

As long as we rely upon carbon fuels that are naturally abundant in only a few areas we face horrible politcal stresses in protecting distant fuel sources. These stresses are not unique to the US, they set policy in India, Japan, China, Russia, Africa, and South America - everyone is concerned about energy.

Nuclear power does not create nuclear weapons. The weapons are possessed by about ten nations, readily available to another twenty or so, and ultimately any determined nation can get in the game. It is a political problem, not a power plant problem.

casting said at January 20, 2006 12:36 AM:

I think the iran/iraq war's start is because of the oil is hard up in America.

tdean said at January 20, 2006 3:42 AM:

P. Andonian: "Do any of you really think a president, a man at the peak of the world power structure, is driven by the concerns of executives at Shell or Exxon? Give me a break."

Sorry, no breaks. As W.C. Fields said so eloquently, "I never give a sucker an even break."

So how do you think Bush really got into office? The massive support of big business CEOs was probably the greatest factor. Do you remember who wrote the Bush energy policy? It was Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton and a pile of big energy executives and CEOs including close friend of the Bush family "Kenny Boy" Lay, former CEO of Enron, meeting in secret. Virtually everyone in Bush's cabinet is a former oil company executive. Bush's dad was an oil company CEO before he went into politics. And Bush was an oil company executive early on but he wasn't really smart enough to make any money in it even with daddy's connections. You think Bush might just listen to oil company CEOs? Duh. You really don't know much, do you Andronian?

As Kurt pointed out early on in this thread, we are spending far more on the Iraq adventure than the oil there is worth. It's a losing deal for America, but that doesn't mean that Halliburton isn't raking in bushels of our tax money. Plenty of other oil companies sent people there, but when they found out that every time they left the Green Zone they were ducking RPGs and couldn't get much done, they got out of Iraq a bit earlier than our troops.

The suckers who voted for Bush, very possibly the most incompetent commander in chief in our history, because they actually thought he will protect the US from the evil terrorists, or the ones who voted for him because he took that really tough Christian stand against queer marriage are getting the government they deserve. Terrorism around the world has more than tripled since Bush and Al Qaida never had such an easy time finding folks willing to blow themselves to smithereens and Bin Laden is definitely alive. And anybody heard about that constitutional amendment to stop gay marriage after the election? Me neither. Fished 'em in again. The Republicans really will get around to making government smaller. They're going to give it away to their billionaire buddies.

But I'd have to say it is awfully hard to figure out just what W is thinking sometimes. Enjoy this very enlightening (and very real) exchange about Bush's wonderful Medicare drug plan:

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: 'I don't really understand. How is it the new plan
going to fix the problem?'

Verbatim response: PRESIDENT BUSH:
'Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost
drivers. For example, how benefits are calculated, for example, is on the
table. Whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price
increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being
considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers,
affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to
get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to
that has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of
muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for
example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as
opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate
-- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, supposed to wage
increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were
put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the
promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will
help on the red.'

Got it? Of course Bush is really a closet genius who is just pretending to be dumb as a stump in order to get his enemies to misunderestimate him.

Bob Badour said at January 20, 2006 3:14 PM:


Getting back to something you wrote earlier regarding the necessity of WWII. If you read Churchill's history of the time or even that sub-set of the work called 'While England Slept', you would better understand his opinion that the war was unecessary.

When Hitler ordered the troops to re-occupy the Rheinland, the Generals were fixing to kill the lunatic as soon as France and England stepped up to the plate. When France and England failed to step up to the plate, they transformed Hitler from an expendable lunatic into an untouchable national hero.

Had England and France stepped up to the plate, Hitler's designs on America would have been entirely moot. He would have been dead long before WWII ever started.

Randall Parker said at January 20, 2006 6:46 PM:


Enough natural gas to run the UK is a pretty small amount. Yes, it matters on the margin for energy prices. But it is not an indication that the Saudis have all that much natural gas.

In fact, the Saudis do not have that much energy in the form of natural gas as compared to the amount they have in the form of oil. I think they have an order of magnitude less energy in natural gas than in oil. But I'm too lazy to google up the exact numbers. However, the Russians have about as many therms of energy in natural gas reserves as the Saudis have in oil reserves. In fact, since the Saudis are probably overestimating their oil reserves by a large amount (see Matthew Simmons on Saudi oil reserves) the Russians probably have more energy reserves than do the Saudis.

We face two major choices at this point:

1) More fossil fuels. Shift toward coal, oil shale, and oil tar sands the oil and natural gas peak and decline.

2) Non-fossil fuels. Shift toward nuclear and eventually solar and wind. Some biomass too. But hopefully not so much that the environmental damage is substantial.

Right now we are headed down the first path. I'd rather we greatly up research in nuclear and solar photovoltaics and in batteries. With enough technological advances we could go down the second path for a lower cost and also with far less pollution.

My guess is that even if the politicians in Western nations stay as unwise about energy policy as they have been to date we will eventually go down the second path because the technological advances will eventually happen. The advances will just take longer without government funding to accelerate research.

Randall Parker said at January 20, 2006 8:21 PM:

Peter Andonian erroneously states:

It is interesting how everyone assumes we are in control of the response in the middle east

You are writing to several people on this thread and I doubt that most believe this. I know I don't.

I think the various governments there are following their own perceived interests and in most cases doing things the Bush Administration and other elements of the government are less than happy with.

I also do not think US Middle Eastern policy is totally set by US oil companies. If it was set by oil companies then the US would be a whole lot less friendlier toward Israel.

US foreign policy is the complex product of a whole set of competing influences. The various influences wax and wane in relative power. This all helps simpler minded conspiracists believe whatever they want to believe about their particular boogeyman faction. Sometimes the conspiracists are even right. This gets them to thinking they are right all the time.

peter Andonian said at January 20, 2006 9:19 PM:

Hi Randall,
What I meant by the comment was that people on the left are always talking about how if Americans just did things differently, a whole laundry list of world problems would just go away. In the next breath, they accuse people on the right of thinking the US is the center of the world. Seems like a contradiction to me. The left if big on rants (see tdean above) and short on reason. One small prick and they go off like a grenade.
As to the topic of this thread, I am a big proponent of moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. They key problem with alternative energy and trasportation fuels is really one of storage. our Grid has zero storage capability (unless you count resevoirs behind dams as storage), and our ability to utilize electrical energy for transportation is practically non existent. V2G technology solves many of these problems all at once. You get a massive storage reserve for the grid, much higher utilization of the transmission network (batteries are filled at low usage times) and a dramatic drop in the need for liquid fuel. The real beauty of it is that there is no need for a whole new energy infrastructure (see hydrogen). It also makes solar and wind much more practical. We only need a modest improvement over current hybrid car batteries (lithium polymer would be sufficient). In fact, the cost of the expensive batteries would be somewhat offset by value added to the utilities. Grid stability is a real problem already and will only get worse as intermittent sources of power are added. Add a good load of new nuclear plants to the mix and we would be set.

tdean said at January 21, 2006 12:56 AM:

K: "Nuclear power does not create nuclear weapons. The weapons are possessed by about ten nations, readily available to another twenty or so, and ultimately any determined nation can get in the game. It is a political problem, not a power plant problem.

Sorry, but you're wrong. The same technology that enriches uranium for a power reactor can be used to create a bomb. Or you can extract plutonium from reactor fuel. That's what India did in the 1970s. They said to the Canadians, "Wow, that CANDU reactor is really cool technology, and could you throw in an NRX reactor?" Then they made a plutonium bomb in '74. The Canadians were upset. But politics only matters in the sense that "war is politics carried out by other means". Countries go nuclear when they feel their country is in danger of military conquest. That's why Israel got the bomb and that's why Iran will get it. And as "Scientific American" points out in it's recent issue "Thwarting Nuclear Terrorism", a Hiroshima bomb takes about 22 Kg of weapons grade uranium and there are 1800 tons of HEU in various places around the world where terrorist can go shopping for it. There are more than 50 tons of HEU under civilian control not guarded by military forces. And that is the main problem with nuclear power technology. If terrorists have obtained enough HEU to make a bomb (and Al Qaida claims they have), a nuclear reactor with tons of nuclear material in it's core is nothing less than a massive force multiplier. By using a nuclear bomb to vaporize a nuclear reactor core, they have lain waste to a state sized chunk of real estate for generations. Maybe that's what Bin Laden is talking about when he threatens the US with a disaster much greater than 9/11. When you do a reasonable job of risk weighting the cost of nuclear power, it is nowhere in the running for cost of power estimates. That's why a nuke reactor can't be insured and why the hugely subsidized nuke industry needs us taxpayers to stand up and take the risk off their shoulders. There is really no way to to make nuclear technology safe in the modern world.

Yet still Parker drones on endlessly " There are only two choices - pollution or nukes...pollution or nukes..." Who's simple minded? There is so much potential technology that will hugely enhance fossil and bio fuel efficiency and cleanliness knocking on the door that there is no need for nukes at all. It does take a determined research effort and real political leadership, which is now the real threatened species. All you lovers of nukes need to remember something else about WWII. In just three years, from 1942 - 45, our national research laboratories invented nuclear power and created a whole infrastructure from scratch. With something like the same effort applied to such technologies as direct carbon fuel cells, superconducting power transmission and solar, can anyone doubt that we can get over the hump till fusion is commercialized or we blow ourselves up?

tdean said at January 21, 2006 1:41 AM:


If I'm so short on reason why don't you take me on in a debate? You stated that Bush is so important that he would never listen to insignificant oil company CEOs and I pointed out with several examples why Bush not only listens to big energy CEOs - they are a dominant force in his administration. Big energy has gained massive political power under Bush and almost everything Bush does serves the interest of big energy or other big corporate interests. In my pharmaceutical example it is clear that Bush himself knows nothing about the tortured mess of a program that his Medicare Drug Bill is. All he can do is parrot terms he heard in meetings he has had with the big pharmaceutical executives like “cost drivers”. Given the horribly inept way the program has been introduced, it should be clear to everyone that the program was written up to serve the needs of the industry, not the people who need the drugs. And in the same way, Bush’s energy policy and his foreign policy serves the interests of big corporations, not citizens. In Texas politics, we say “You’ve gotta dance with the one who brung ya.” And big business definitely brought Bush to the dance.

So tell me why I’m wrong, Andonian. Of course I would understand if you decided to retire. Even Parker has taken the tactic of pretending to ignore me because he got tired of getting his butt kicked on his own blog. I’m here to debate the issues, not to kiss somebody's ass.

Corinna said at January 21, 2006 12:39 PM:

I wish that someone would tell the oil companies that oil shut off from Iran would not produce a problem for the U.S. It seems that the stock market believes and is pushing the theory that oil reduction can effect the entire stock market. It may not be necessary to carry through with the threat, only produce a verbal scare that producees a decline in the American stock market and economic growth. Why are Americans so opposed to drilling in Alaska and yet express such fear of oil depletion or cuts?

Peter Andonian said at January 21, 2006 12:56 PM:

It is hard to have a rational debate when one side uses the machine gun style. I am sure your laundry list of Bush's sins goes on forever. If I take you on and win on one point, you will have 5 more behind that, ad infinitum. Bush has make plenty of mistakes, but I think he is doing his best in a difficult set of circumstances. What I like about this particular forum is the discussion about upcoming techology and how it will affect us in the future. The raging politics gets tiresome. There is no way I will ever convice you that Bush is anything but an evil, manupulative schemer who aims to enrich Halliburton. I am sure he has been implanted with a chip by the oil companies so he can be controlled remotely. I concede. Lets get back to discussions about technology and how we can get over our fossil fuel dependency.

jimcrack said at January 21, 2006 5:06 PM:

tdean: "In just three years, from 1942 - 45, our national research laboratories invented nuclear power and created a whole infrastructure from scratch. With something like the same effort applied to such technologies as direct carbon fuel cells, superconducting power transmission and solar, can anyone doubt that we can get over the hump till fusion is commercialized or we blow ourselves up?"

OK genius, it's now 64 years, we've already developed and democratically discussed all the technologies you rhapsodize about, and it's not as though Ned Beatty proclaimed himself God and locked them away in his drawer.

Solar: PV does not even earn back the energy to create them for 3-4 years, costs 4X as much as market energy, and is prone to degradation in reliability and efficiency over useful life. Much talk of alternatives to silicon crystal and amorphous, but I haven't seen them hit the market in 20 years.

Superconducting transmission lines: Fail to transmit AC power; expensive and no longer discussed as significant capacitors or storage units of electricity. Aluminum SC ring developed by DOE in Tennessee failed within months. High temperature SC's fail to produce density of electricity to compete with market; grade of electricity incompatible with SQUIDS and other high value energy devices, such as for peak power shaving, transformers, etc. Real concern that the materials needed for manufacture are too scarce or expensive to warrant exploitation. And how to refrigerate? Most feasible means is natural gas: other technologies such as thermocouples and magnetic spin refrigeration not known to reach cryogenic levels, at least from what I see in the popular literature. And we are running out of gas.

Fusion: More than 30 years of fairly intensive research, some of which probably of military interest, like the atomic bomb (the Tokamak was a Soviet invention, get the picture?) Chief reaction products are gamma rays and neutrons, reviving concerns similar to conventional atomic power. No evidence this is efficient means of producing power through induction: thermoelectric boilers probably in the works. Fusion cannot be sustained except by reinvesting 90+% of energy actually produced. Only known cold-fusion device cannot sustain reaction, nor produce significant grade of electricity.

Direct Carbon Fuel Cells: Touche. But despite all your belittling us ignorant bloggers, it was one of THEM who pointed out a report on the subject tucked away at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, not you. But there are still questions. It costs energy to create the low-ash carbon black needed for fuel, and more energy for the materials transport of carbon and CO2 through the cell. So the 70-80% electrical efficiency promised may not in fact exist now. But if you think 3L is holding back on us, direct your yowling at them, not us.

As for myself, I wholeheartedly endorse the Generation IV nuclear research of the DOE. It may be such a good deal, that all these terrorists of whom you show feigned concern, who are trading uranium for vodka somewhere in Islamabad, would probably unload the stuff in Washington at the right price.

tdean said at January 21, 2006 5:43 PM:

Mr. Andonian,

Fair enough. You took me on regarding politics and I consider it a debate. In a debate you support your position with facts and that is what I was doing. And politics is at the core of these issues regarding energy and related foreign policy issues, so it is inevitable that politics comes up. Note that “political” is in the subject line of this thread, so I see no need to apologize for talking politics. Some folks think it a sin to discuss politics, I think it is essential to understanding our responsibilities as citizens.

Even though I work in the fossil fuel business, I agree that our dependency on foreign oil is a serious threat to our national security and economy. Honestly, I do better economically with Bush's policies, but they are a disaster for the nation as a whole, and I consider the nation's welfare to be the more critical consideration. I'll do just fine in any case.

You and I can discuss various technologies and agree on the right path our nation should take. But what would it matter, really? Policy decisions are made by congress and the president in reality. If a particular policy that benefits the nation as a whole affects an industry in a negative fashion, it might spend millions to lobby congress to kill the policy. And since no more than one out of ten voters would know or care about the underlying issues, a few million more spent on propaganda by industries will protect their servants in congress from a voter backlash. A concrete example is the ironically named Clear Skies initiative of the Bush Administration. Were citizens clamoring for a reform of the New Source Review Policy? I am quite sure that less than 5% of voters could tell you what New Source Review was, but it could cost power companies billions of dollars, and that is who Bush was listening to. So they came up with Clear Skies which effectively gutted New Source Review, a key tool of the Clean Air Act, increasing pollution relative to existing law. This was only good for the Power Companies and bad for everyone else, but who did the government really serve? Thomas Jefferson said "The mother principle [is] that 'governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it.'" With the current situation where corporations, with virtually unlimited financial resources, are allowed to influence government to do their bidding with utter disregard of the will of the people, we have moved far from the intentions of the founding fathers when they set up our country and wrote our constitutions. The bottom line is that corporations are not people, they do not deserve human rights protections or representation in congress and they are very close to fully taking over our government, a situation that Mussolini defined as Fascism.

We are fortunate that we can still debate political issues in public on the internet. I have to wonder how long that will be the case. But debate is a competitive game and when I play, I intend to win.

So what technology did you want to discuss?

tdean said at January 21, 2006 7:29 PM:


Pretty good point-by-point. But to be really effective you would have to show that additional research wouldn't solve the problems you mention. And squids? What do squids have to do with anything regarding cryogenic transmission? THey are basically magnetometers. Make some sense at least. And what cold fusion device works? None has ever been shown to be more than measurement errors or scams.

And I never said bloggers were idiots. THat would make me an idiot, wouldn't it? All I ask is that you people try to refute my points rather than calling me names. I directly complemented the person who brought up the carbon fuel cell and I was surprised that it is not more well known given it's potential importance. LLL is publicizing the carbon fuel cells, but not very effectively.

I do appreciate the serious discourse. Most of your points are well taken.

K said at January 21, 2006 9:45 PM:

tdean. Been a while... You missed, or ignored, my point in your 12:56 above. Nuclear weapons are a political problem. Power plants do not produce them any more than bird shit from Chile produced explosives.

I remember your grave concerns about nuclear bombs, meltdowns, terrorist attacks, waste disposal. They are valid concerns. I think the energy situation is such that nuclear power is still what must be done. And push solar for all we can get.

People go all over on this stuff. I have no faith in hydrogen because it is not a power source - it merely comes from conversion of some other fuel or from an extraction which requires power. As a boy I remember my brother-in-law working on clean coal. I am hopelessly biased against coal - and frankly I think the facts support my bias. I see little promise from oil shale - it nets about 10% of the power of coal, is harder to use, and just as dirty. Oil tar sands are somewhat better. Wind and water are not enough.

So we either think oil and natural gas will last or we do something. Biomass can help somewhat in the US, prospects around the world are less promising. So, as I said at 11:37, it looks like nuclear and solar. One we all dislike, the other is stubbornly expense.

tdean said at January 22, 2006 12:33 AM:


I thought I covered your point in my post. I just disagreed. Well, I guess you can say it's true that power plants don't make bombs, but the same technology makes both. If you want to make weapons grade uranium you just put it through the centrifuge a few thousand more times than you would if making a bomb. Because the technology is the same, Iran can reasonably claim: "I swear by Allah, we are only making reactor fuel. Honest." Really a good Muslim doesn't swear by Allah, but that's a different subject. But if blowing up a single reactor can destroy more economic value than the entire global nuke industry has generated in it's history, how can nuclear be a viable energy source? Given the state of security of weapons grade in Russia and other places it really can't. Like you, I think that nuclear technology is very cool, but a nuclear power plant isn't safe until you bury it under a hundred feet of reinforced concrete. Even then, it doesn't make economic sense. Coal is decidedly less cool as a technology and we have just lost some good men to keep our lights on. But if they can figure out how to make the pure carbon needed for the carbon fuel cell then coal will be able to supply all the energy we need. If we sequester or use otherwise use the pure CO2 exhaust, it will be pollution free (not includin mine effluents and land damage. If the government enforced the mining regulations on the books, those brave miners would not need to die, either. Thats three "ifs" and there are many more you could come up with. Each choice of technologies has its own set of "ifs", but you increase your odds substantially if you pursue several promising technologies at the same time. That's what the Manhattan project did when it covered it's bases by pursuing both uranium and plutonium bombs and by developing both centrifuge and diffusion technologies simultaneously. But there was no prize for coming in second, and our nation's survival was in the balance. I think those conditions hold today as well. Gotta get down to it.

tdean said at January 22, 2006 1:29 AM:

Oops. ERRATUM: In that last post, 2nd sentence, the last two words should be replaced with "reactor fuel". It's late.

K said at January 22, 2006 1:42 AM:


To me the argument against nuclear power doesn't work because it assumes not building nuclear power plants will improve the existing weapons situation. There is no evidence whatever that any nation with bombs plans to get rid of them. There is no evidence that nations cannot build bombs if they really want to. There is no reason to believe Iran or North Korea about anything they say. There is not reason to believe some other nation will not start down that road - Chavez in Venzuela, most of South America is turning left, who knows what Egypt, Cuba, or Vietnam, Indonesia, or one of the former SSRs might do.

The UN, which is charged with monitoring the NNPT, is totally paralyzed. Iran signed it and laughs. Several Asian and African nations produce uranium ore. And some nations with bombs, such as Pakistan, have security that is laughable. Half the nations of Europe will sell centrifuges and instruments and ship them anywhere in brown paper packages. Who really knows what is going on? The CIA, and supposedly the intelligence of several other nations, had no idea what was mined or not mined in Niger in 2002.

And there are roughly 100 US reactors and 400 foreign ones that are already possible targets for terrorists. Others are adding nuclear power whether we do or not.

So I don't see what is to be gained by not building new plants. Some to replace old ones, some to replace those burning oil and natural gas, and some to add capacity. Free up that oil and gas for vehicles.

Coal produces about half of our electricity. I would phase out coal last - we don't import it and we aren't going to run out.

Show me how the dangers of nuclear would go away and I will agree to shut every nuclear plant in America tomorrow. And I guess we would have to just padlock those plants - the environmentalists wouldn't let them be dismantled and the waste stored.

Nuclear is a mess. It is a mess we do not know how to solve. Fossil fuel is a problem but we know how to solve it.

Nuclear will remain a mess whether or not we use the good aspects of nuclear power. If not, we end up with the bad aspects of nuclear but none of the benefits.

tdean said at January 22, 2006 3:24 PM:


My argument is pretty simple and no doubt getting tedious since I've made it so many times in the past. Here it is: nuclear power plants provide possessors of nuclear bombs with a huge force multiplier. By concentrating tons of nuclear materials in a tiny volume, a nuclear bomb detonated near the core of a nuclear reactor would vaporize and pulverize the nuclear material and distribute it over many thousands of square miles, creating super-fallout that would remove that land from the service of humanity for centuries. And again, if one incident like that can destroy more economic value than the industry has created in it's history, it makes no economic sense, notwithstanding the massive human death and suffering such an attack would create.

I live close enough to a nuclear plant to have reason to worry about it and I have personally seen how easily corporate jets smuggling cocaine can cross the the southern border. If we cannot stop cocaine smuggled via Mexico, we cannot stop weapons grade uranium. Even before viable terrorist threats against nuclear reactors were considered, the industry could not secure insurance against catastrophic accidents and required the Price-Anderson act to absolve it from responsibility, putting the risk on taxpayers. With a viable, I would say inevitable, threat of a terrorist nuclear attack on a reactor, that liability and risk is far to great to make nuclear economically viable. All nuclear plants should be guarded with military resources including anti-air and antimissile technology until they can be dismantled.

K said at January 22, 2006 4:21 PM:

tdean re. your 3:24

You insist on what is not possible. Nukes, both bombs and power plants, are not going away. The US can get rid of ours and others will just keep theirs. And build more.

You rebut your own case: if we can't stop cocaine we probably can't stop suitcase nukes. We certainly can't stop a determined foe from getting one in a container ship going to our harbors. The smuggler might even think it is cocaine in the box and not realize millions will die.

I have nothing against guarding the plants, new ones can be much more secure than old ones simply by design and site selection. But no! You don't want that!

You demand nothing but candy. Well there isn't any candy right now. And without some world political agreement that is enforced (LOL there) the nukes are out of the bag. So we either take the good with the bad, or get the bad alone.

tdean said at January 22, 2006 11:18 PM:

K: "You insist on what is not possible. Nukes, both bombs and power plants, are not going away. "

I am strongly inclined to believe that they won't be going away until we see what the costs really are. When a land area the size of Ohio goes on vacation for 500 years, people will understand what the Price - Anderson act is all about, and that will be the end of nuke plants.

And how do I rebut my own case? Your statement doesn't make sense. If we can't stop cocaine we can't stop terrorist nuclear weapons, and the most effective use of a small nuclear weapon is to vaporize a nuke plant, which will distribute thousands of times more fallout than a bomb alone. That's my case and it is not pleasant to think about. But try to make sense.

Most of our present nuclear plants are near retirement and will have to be replaced with something. My vote is solar thermal, clean coal with sequestration and carbon fuel cell plants. We don't need nuclear.

remo williams said at January 22, 2006 11:48 PM:

From what I've read, the cost of solar has decreased 50% each decade from 1975. If this continues and people like Kurzweil are correct about the promise of nanotechnology in solar power, there will be a fundamental change in under 20 years.

Peak oil, shmeak oil.

jimcrack said at January 23, 2006 3:01 PM:


My point about SQUIDS was precisely your point. They are useless toys. But they were devised to exploit a weakness in superconductors, which is that the slightest inefficiency produces a magnetic field, which disrupts superconductivity. The idea is that with properly controlled temperature, a SQUID would be a very sensitive magnetic detector, hence detector of electrical current down to the level of a neuron. Since they are unreliable, they indicate the limitations of controlling the magnetic problem as a whole.

Another ingenious invention along those lines goes like this: a SC produces much current and a waste magnetic field. The field is run through a magnetic salt, which absorbs the energy as heat. The magnetism diminishes, and the fluctuation mechanically moves the salt into a cryogenic sink, removing the waste energy from the system and starting the cycle again. Fine, but it is only of use for superconductors. Much research into superconductivity is incestuously devoted to furthering superconductivity and cryogenics, not advancing an ultimate use. The idea was publicized in NASA Tech Briefs about 16 years ago, and I haven't heard about it since.

The stakes of superconducting transmission are small: only 9% of electrical energy on the grid is wasted. 1/2 can be licked by transformers made of amorphous copper, much of the rest can be cut down by district power mangement (Amory Lovins in the past year Scientific American). Economists believe that if an economic innovation cannot produce more than an 8% cost savings, then the investment is of statistically insignificant importance. Superconductors are a top heavy investment in radically new technology that begs to junk existing technology in one step, with undemonstrated ROI.

K said at January 23, 2006 3:55 PM:

jimcrack at 3:01.

Good post. I agree that superconducting transmission has not made it's case. Nothing wrong with continuing to hope. But I now place it more in the realm of hope than expectation.

Your second paragraph caught my eye. "The idea was publicized in NASA Tech Briefs about 16 years ago, and I haven't heard about it since."

I find it difficult to believe the magnetic field from the SC can be converted to heat without some counter EMF defeating the process. But it isn't my field.

Finally. The economists are partly right about innovation return rates. But everything eventually needs replacement. So any cost savings is worthwhile when replacing (with the usual caveat, other things being equal).

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