Friday, August 14, 2009

Untying the Gordian Knot - An Essay

(c) Copyright 2007, Caroll Williams, all rights reserved
This and other writings can be found at

I am seething with anger over the stupidity and cowardice our world’s leaders demonstrate by their failure to address the most pressing problem threatening our continued existence on planet earth. In this essay I am going to sound off, and I am not going to spare anyone’s feelings.

Granted the problem is complex, but like the Gordian knot it admits to a solution. Let me begin by stating that I am not a “tree-hugger” or an ecofascist. I think of myself as a pragmatist and a responsible thinking citizen of not only my own country, but of the world as a whole. Humans in all generations have a responsibility to future generations not to screw up the planet.

The most vexing problem facing civilization today is the profligate use of the worst possible forms of energy to drive our world economy. The combustion of carbon based fuels is dead wrong and should be halted without delay. Some want to replace carbon-based power plants with nuclear power. No, no, a thousand times no! Nuclear power is not the answer because nuclear waste products threaten the very form and the existence of life for untold generations yet to be born. Nuclear power is more irresponsible than carbon-based power and in the most insidious way. We need to move quickly to a "hydrogen" based economy.

Today’s petroleum companies think in terms of being in the “oil business.” They need a massive shift in their paradigm or world view. They are not in the “oil business” they are in the “energy business.” Until they recognize this, they will continue to contribute to the destruction of our environment, our economy, and our national security.

Some alternate fuels are already in the market place. Ethanol and bio-diesel are but stop gap measures destined to prolong the agony of making the leap to hydrogen. Ethanol production is directly responsible for a huge increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere through unintended consequences. Increased corn production in the USA displaced soybean production. To satisfy world soy bean demand, Brazilian farmers burned thousands of additional acres of Amazon rain forest to gain acreage for soy bean production. Burning millions of trees in the Amazon released more carbon into the atmosphere in a single year than the entire U.S. fleet of automobiles and light trucks have released in the past century. Trees that had absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for centuries and had served as a carbon "sink" were forced to release all their stored up carbon. The net contribution of Ethanol then is extremely negative.

Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe. Hydrogen can be used in our present fleet of internal combustion engines and in fuel cells to generate electricity. Both uses can drive surface vehicles and provide stationary power sources for industry. Hydrogen can be separated from water. In the process of separation pure oxygen remains as a by-product. The world’s surface is 75% water and 25% land area. All coastal nations can become energy self sufficient in the recovery of hydrogen from the sea.

All nations are not equally endowed with petroleum sources. The industrial economies of Japan, Europe, and the United States are dependent upon petroleum from the Middle East, Iran, Russia, Nigeria, and Venezuela. In all of those areas there is political instability, terrorism, wars, and threats to our carbon-based energy source.

Why should we cease using petroleum? The continued use of petroleum exacerbates global warming and climate change. We depend upon unreliable energy sources. A negative balance of payments from developed economies flows into the coffers of rogue states and into the pockets of terrorists who wish to destroy our very civilization. Every time we fill our gas tanks we put more and more money into the hands of religious fanatics and terrorists who deny their own people freedom of religion and demand that the world convert to Islam.

No matter how you feel about our military invasion of Iraq good, bad, or indifferent, the facts are these. We won the battle by overturning the regime of Sadaam Hussein, but we will lose the war. Why? Why can’t we win in Iraq? How does one define victory in this kind of war? What does it mean to win? Victory for the U.S. and its coalition allies would mean a secure stable and democratic Iraq safely inside its own borders with no interference from surrounding rogue states. Because we in the west failed to consider that Iraq and much of the Middle East is simply ungovernable we can never achieve this kind of victory. Animosity between Shia and Suuni and other religious factions will NEVER give way to security and stability. It never has, and it never will.

Now that being said, what is my prediction for the outcome of the current debacle in Iraq? It is not good! The coalition will leave Iraq sooner or later. The outcome will be the same no matter how long our forces remain in Iraq.

Chaos will follow our departure. Iraq will be dominated by Shiite militias. Mullahs such as Muqtada Al Sadr will ally themselves with Shiite dominated Iran. Iran will control the petroleum resources of Iraq for decades to come. Nations such as Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Doha, will be severely threatened by the combined power of Iraq and Iran and may well fall prey to conquest. The United States and its western allies do not have the stomach for nor the political will for another “oil war” in the Middle East.

Petroleum prices will rise precipitously. The free market will respond to rising oil prices by seeking secure alternate energy sources. We saw the workings of the free market in the 1970’s following the Yom Kippur war and the oil embargo which produced shortages and rapidly rising prices. When OPEC raised the price of crude from $4 a barrel to over $40 a barrel the free market was able to pay for the search and the development of new sources of petroleum. The North Sea between Scotland and Norway, the north slope of Alaska, and Mexico’s Chiapas fields and offshore Gulf deposits were discovered and drilled. These sources did not free us from the grip of petroleum terrorists around the world. They were only a stop gap measure and will be depleted in a few years.

Those opposed to hydrogen argue that since the infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles does not currently exist, it would be impractical to introduce it as an alternative to gasoline. In addition they argue that since the combustion of hydrogen or its conversion in fuel cells produces water vapor as its only by-product this would upset the earth’s water cycle. A counter argument can be made that the current use of carbon-based petroleum fuels with its resulting green house gasses is far more destabilizing to the earth’s water cycle. Why is this important? The earth’s water cycle of evaporation and rainfall controls the climate over the whole earth.

Some have argued in favor of the Kyoto Accords which the United States has consistently refused to ratify and to put into operation. Why have we taken that stance? China and India are specifically named in the Kyoto Accords as exempt from reducing green house gas emissions. China and India are the two largest producers of industrial green house gasses and are presently increasing those gas emissions at an alarming rate. The Kyoto Accords required Western Europe and the United States to reduce their emissions. To do so, we argued would sharply curtail all industrial and transportation in our country.

A recent article in the press has reported that uncontrolled accidental fires that have burned for decades in underground mines in China alone produces more carbon emissions than the entire surface fleet of vehicles in the United States and coal mine fires in India run a close second. These mine fires can be extinguished with modern methods. Not to extinguish these fires while insisting that the U.S. adhere to the Kyoto Accords is the most blatant form of national hypocrisy on the part of India and China.

We are not opposed to cleaning up the environment. We are opposed to being made the scapegoats for carbon emissions, while exempting the biggest polluters.
What kind of a dent in the problem could we make by changing from gasoline to hydrogen? Ninety-three percent of all gasoline consumed in America is used in personal cars, light trucks, SUV’s and vans. If we convert the entire personal surface fleet to hydrogen we could eliminate 93% of all gasoline consumption in the USA.

How do I propose to accomplish this in short order? If the political will were to exist in our government, we could outlaw the production and sale of gasoline-burning surface vehicles as of a date certain. Perhaps give the automakers of the world three years to make the change. What about the current inventory of vehicles? We could grandfather in all existing vehicles for a period of perhaps five or six years. Beyond that time, all gasoline-powered vehicles would have to be either converted to hydrogen or retired from the road. Put them in museums or sell them for scrap. This would give the owner the time to decide the useful life of their current car or light truck.

Will American car makers be able to adapt? General Motors and Ford as well as other brands all have hydrogen powered vehicle development programs under way. Ford recently demonstrated a hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle exceeding speeds of over 200 miles per hour on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. Hopefully we won’t see traffic on our Interstates at those speeds, but the technology is capable of satisfying American’s lust for high performance. The primary reason such vehicles are slow to come to the market is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure. We need every filling station in the nation equipped to refuel hydrogen cars and trucks.

Adopting a hydrogen economy would help the United States free itself from its unsustainable balance of payments deficit and all that it entails. We currently spend far more than we earn in foreign trade. The imbalance is largely the result of our addiction to foreign oil. Foreign countries including China now hold obscene quantities of American dollars in their central banks. They do not purchase American goods, they are purchasing American infrastructure. The Chinese central bank recently invested over 300 billion dollars with the Blackstone Group a private equity investment firm. The first purchase Blackstone made was to buy the entire Hilton family of hotels and motels. Now when you stay at a Hampton Inn or a Hilton Hotel you are paying for your room to the Chinese communists if that makes any difference to you.

Recently the Chinese attempted to purchase Unocal, an American oil company. Several years ago they purchased the IBM personal computer business from IBM. The Lenovo group now holds the patents and design secrets previously developed by IBM. The Chinese are now shopping for one of the only two hard drive makers in the world, either Western Digital or Seagate. In either case if they buy one of those firms, they will have access to the most sensitive encryption technology developed by American brains and held closely by those companies.

Why is this important? Encryption technology is used to prevent hackers from accessing massive amounts of sensitive business and government data. In the hands of the Chinese communists, how secure will our CIA and FBI computers remain if they choose to share encryption programming secrets with countries and terrorists who hate the USA?

You may recall the Dubai World Ports deal purchasing American port facilities from the British P&O Company. There was a political storm over that transaction.
All of the above cited examples would NEVER have taken place if the USA did not run a trade deficit enriching the rest of the world at our expense.

Will we be driving hydrogen powered vehicles? YES! Sooner or later we will. The sooner the better for Western Civilization!

If you have some thoughts on this subject, please submit a comment.


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