Paul Krugman: Drilling, Disaster, Denial

Roundup: Media's Take

[Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and a columnist for the New York Times.]

It took futuristic technology to achieve one of the worst ecological disasters on record. Without such technology, after all, BP couldn’t have drilled the Deepwater Horizon well in the first place. Yet for those who remember their environmental history, the catastrophe in the gulf has a strangely old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of the events that led to the first Earth Day, four decades ago....

Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared “dead,” its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities — especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles — were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog.

It wasn’t that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the Clean Water Act was enacted, and America began making headway against its most visible environmental problems. Air quality improved: smog alerts in Los Angeles, which used to have more than 100 a year, have become rare. Rivers stopped burning, and some became swimmable again. And Lake Erie has come back to life, in part thanks to a ban on laundry detergents containing phosphates.

Yet there was a downside to this success story.

For one thing, as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.”...

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Frank Hummel - 8/7/2010

I THINK that Obama & Co. "get it", but I sure wish they were EDUCATING people a lot more effectively about what is actually in prospect in the unfolding of the technological paradigm change that is now actually (barely) underway.

The thing is --- "We" really DO ALREADY have the cost effective solutions to enable "us" to WEAN "our"selves OFF of "our" ADDICTIVE DEPENDENCY on OIL (both OTHER PEOPLES' and ALSO "OUR" OWN AS WELL) in hand!

Fossil fuel does NOT constitute the "height of technology"! The ALTERNATIVE technologies DO exist, or are WITHIN EASY REACH --- because they do NOT actually involve very "exotic"/futuristic blue-sky developments! In many cases they entail nothing more than adaptations to MUCH LESSER applications of technologies DEVELOPED MANY YEARS AGO NOW AND ALREADY LONG IN USE ON MUCH HEAVIER "PLATFORMS"!

Witness, for example, that the "fallback half" of the “new” "Chimera" Automotive Architecture (e.g. the Chevy VOLT / Audi AMPERE) is really nothing but the drive paradigm of the Diesel-Electric Locomotive --- which has been in NEARLY UNIVERSAL use on the railroads for many years now already, and is also the drive system of many of the largest ships on the High Seas!

What has LONG now already been IMPEDING progress actually being EMBRACED and GENUINELY IMPLEMENTED has ACTUALLY been: (1) the TECHNOLOGICAL IGNORANCE of FAR too great a proportion of "We the (Small) People", and (2) the RELUCTANCE TO ROOT OUT a lot of ARTIFICIAL, "ECONOMIC" structure that has grown up over a very long time that, although it may have served reasonably well in the past, IS NOW SO OUTMODED AS TO VERGE ON BEING OBSOLETE! And the OTHER "dimension" of the whole general pattern of people having long been played for and preyed upon as fools in the past has been the "PHONY ECONOMICS" that is generally "promulgated" vis-a-vis the relative "affordability" of "alternatives " by comparison to "good ol' fossil fuels". Much of the “thinking” involved in THAT comparison has been GROSSLY DISTORTED FOR DECADES!

With respect to the economics of the "Electric Car", CONSIDER:

For the record, the overall fuel efficiency of the Chevrolet Volt, as dutifully calculated / statistically estimated by the EPA, works out to be about 230(!) (YES, that is TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY!) miles per gallon of gasoline!!

According to former GM chieftains Rick Waggoner and Bob Lutz, about $0.89 worth of “grid” electricity, at contemporary electric utility rates, "fills" the Volt’s battery --- which carries the car FOR 40 MILES. Thereafter, an on-board internal combustion engine (ICE) “kicks in” (seamlessly). However, that engine does NOT power the vehicle in the archaic manner to which people have become inured over the course of the last century, coupling energy to the drive wheels MECHANICALLY by means of a TRANSMISSION and DRIVE TRAIN! Rather, it drives an ELECTRIC GENERATOR, which then powers the same ELECTRIC drive motors that had been supplied by the BATTERY until it ran down.

Now THREE-FOURTHS of all driving of personal automobiles in this country FITS WITHIN A 40 MILE “ENERGY BUDGET”! Hence, THREE-FOURTHS OF THE TIME THE GASOLINE ENGINE NEVER RUNS(!) --- thereby FLAT-OUT ELIMINATING FULLY THREE-FOURTHS OF ALL THOSE BAZILLIONS OF BARRELS OF OIL that “we” import (at a cost “we” CAN’T AFFORD!), or would now “drill, baby, drill” (at a cost that “we” CAN AFFORD EVEN LESS!)

And if intermittent / variable energy provided by "home" solar- and/or wind- power generation were to be harnessed (generally supplemented as needed by power drawn from the grid), that cost COULD DROP NEARLY TO ZERO! It would not be difficult to devise a charging system that would target for a full battery by a pre-designated time of day, drawing on "free" power as much as possible and falling back to the grid only to the extent (if any) necessary to “make up the difference” by the specified target hour. (The battery DOES NOT “CARE” if it is fully or partly charged intermittently / variably from solar- and/or wind- power sources as long as it gets “filled up” on time! An "electric car" system could thus make good use of "free" power that is readily available but which is not steady enough for many other applications.)

But even at full (contemporary) utility rates, eight such charges costing just $7.12 would provide about the same number of miles driven (320) AS A TANK OF GASOLINE BURNED IN THE “CONVENTIONAL” MANNER THAT COSTS ABOUT FOUR(!) TIMES THAT MUCH --- and indeed vastly more than that, really, if an HONEST accounting were being done that would actually recognize and accurately gauge all the ancillary (e.g. all the military!) costs of “expropriating”, extracting, transporting, distributing, and “marketing” the underlying oil, and also of "cleaning up" the Gulf of Mexico and Prince William Sound, and all the “security” costs of “defending against” “al-Qaeda”-type fanatics goaded by “our” hypocritical “INCIDENTAL” IMPERIALISM to aspire to martyrdom!

Moreover, such cars can be BUILT CHEAPLY --- once the battery technology is "ramped up" --- for one SIMPLY ELIMINATES THE WHOLE COMPLEX, EXPENSIVE, TROUBLESOME MECHANICAL TRANSMISSION AND DRIVE TRAIN! (The ICE merely POWERS AN ELECTRIC GENERATOR!) And at that recent ribbon-cutting by Obama at that Michigan Battery Plant, the expectation was stated that THOSE BATTERIES WILL DECLINE IN PRICE BY ABOUT 70% WITHIN A FEW YEARS!!

But such a paradigm changeover DOES bespeak a HUGE disruption of much of “our” ECONOMY! Just imagine the world 15-20 years from now when perhaps THREE-FOURTHS of all the GAS STATIONS on every other lousy street corner will be GONE --- because THEY SIMPLY WILL NO LONGER BE NEEDED(!) (having "fallen victim" to the "Electric Car"). (So then, where will people go to buy cigarettes, sodas, and lottery tickets? And what will become of the folks who owned all those that "failed", and those who had worked thereat? Well, a partial answer to THAT is that many of the younger, better, and brighter among them are going to have to GO OFF AN LEARN TO BE ELECTRICIANS INSTEAD! And many of the "business types" are going to have to switch over to ELECTRICAL SUPPLIES!)

Folks, I'm pretty old now (66 years already). But most of YOU will have the fate of "living in interesting times" (per the ancient Chinese curse) for most of your lives.