Thermodynamics? Its Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

oil well

For millennia mankind relied upon energy sources that were diffuse. We burned wood, which grows in energy-concentrating organisms called trees. We could only gather the wood if it had fallen, or if we could use our stone-based tools to break wood apart. Some folks were fortunate in that their environment held a form of turf that would burn, one we call peat. And once we domesticated animals, we discovered that we could burn their feces, if we could stomach the smell. But that was it. We could not leverage our power by harnessing energy sources to supplant muscle power.

Over time, we mastered the manufacture of metals. This made it easier to harvest wood, and made it easier to use it for heating and cooking. But only after we recognized as a species that we could use energy to create steam, and then harness the steam to do work, only then did we gain the possibility to advance society through the use of machines. Since that time, we have worked diligently to use ever more concentrated sources of energy in order to do our bidding. Coal was the first concentrated source of energy used to leverage man’s muscles, and entire regions rich in coal soon were honeycombed with tunnels where coal had been extracted.

Coal has its own problems, though. It is dirty, dusty, and burning it causes a sulfur stink to cling to the landscape where it is used. It also bears a human toil in the death and disabilities of those who work to mine coal. Oil has long been used by man for lighting, but the sources of oil were either vegetable in nature, or for a short time, based on blubber. This type of oil is a concentrated source of energy, but it is gathered by diffuse energy sources. It was only when man discovered how to extract virgin pools of petroleum oil from below the surface of the earth that it became possible to create a liquid fuel that could propel individual transportation vehicles. Once the miracles of fuel oil and gasoline were unleashed, the automobile age was enabled.

Concentrated sources of energy were viewed as inexhaustible in the earth, and man grew to believe it was his birthright to exploit these sources in perpetuity. Indeed, man even harnessed the second most concentrated source of energy known, that of atomic fission, and controlled it to convert mass into electricity. That source of energy creates its own problems, with long-lived radioactive waste, and with the narrow line separating safe operation from catastrophe. Still, the energy future for man looked bright.

But after centuries of exploiting concentrated energy sources, the problems resulting from their use have grown exponentially. In Appalachia, we no longer delve under the ground for rich veins of organic rock. The best veins are gone. Instead, we blow the top off of mountainsides in order to free up the 2′ and 3′ veins of coal that were left in bygone geological times. Excess dirt and rock is pushed over the sides of the former mountain, leaving behind a scar on the land where ground cover is grown to regenerate the soil that is long gone.

Standard oil wells have gone dry in many regions. The decline in oil production in the US, coupled with the expanding use of oil, led to over dependence upon foreign oil sources, particularly from the Arabian Gulf. In the 1970’s, this dependence led to the use of oil as a political weapon, as the Arab countries withheld oil from the US to protest Israel’s seizure of Arab lands after a failed Arab war on Israel. It was only with the advent of enhanced oil recovery through fracking that the long decline in US oil production was reversed.

But even with the impressive increase in oil and natural gas generated through fracking, there are other issues that need to be dealt with. This does not concern fracking wastes or earthquakes from waste fluid injection. No, it has to do with the depletion rates of wells drilled using fracking. Whereas a conventional petroleum reservoir has a depletion rate measured over decades, with fracking wells, the rate of production from a fracking well may decrease by over 50% in the first year. The depletion rate of a fracking well shows an exponential decrease in production, and the economic lifetime of a well may be less than 10 years. Thus it is necessary to keep drilling, inserting pipe into the ground, and dealing with all of the fluid handling for any oil or gas fracking well.

The net result is that it takes more and more energy to extract fossil fuels through fracking than the old method of production. Fewer and fewer BTU’s of useful energy is available from the well once all of the energy inputs of the well are subtracted. Subtract the energy used to make the steel pipe, the energy used to move all of the fluids and sand for fracking, the energy used to separate the fossil fuel from the comingled water, and the energy costs for pipelines and compressor stations for natural gas. One begins to come up against thermodynamic limits for obtaining useful energy out of fossil fuel extraction. For a link that you may find useful in pursuing this further, please check out http://peakoil.com/geology This website has many different perspectives on oil – either we are swimming in it, or the last big discoveries have already been made.

Note that this discussion has not mentioned carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas. Any solution to humanity’s energy issues needs to take greenhouse gases into account, but the underlying demise of the oil economy may happen despite all of the efforts to keep the oil flowing. No, what is needed is that we must realize that we need to go back to the older methods of harvesting diffuse energy sources. And all of the diffuse energy sources we have are tied to the sun. Whether it is solar electricity, or wind power, or biomaterials generating hydrocarbon liquids, all of them use the sun as the ultimate energy source. If we are to avoid a crisis over the next decade due to depletion of fossil fuel sources, we must commit to harvesting diffuse sources of solar energy to keep our society running.

Much of the blowback against global warming refers to the “globalists” imposing their control agenda upon the brave and valiant people who fly the fossil fuel flag. They are insistent that it is their right to live as their (most recent) forefathers lived, and keep buying the biggest SUV or pickup that they may ever need to have, simply because oil is cheap, and will always stay that way. Those people will be the first to be blindsided when oil prices keep climbing inexorably, year after year, and they will not understand that even though more oil is being harvested, only a small fraction of that oil is truly available to keep their profligate lifestyle afloat. If we truly do enter a world where it takes more energy to extract a barrel of oil than that oil will release during combustion, then the end for our life of ease will come, and we will retreat back into the life of the past, where all of our energy was consumed just in order to survive.

Inevitable?

Tantrum

In retrospect, it was inevitable. The very first time he encountered limits imposed upon him by systems he could not control, he regressed into the infantile emotional state that always existed just below the surface. For someone who never had to answer to others until he was hired to be President, he was woefully unprepared emotionally to face opposition and rejection. Thus now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump, arms crossed tightly around his torso while he expectorated his disgust about the actions of the US attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York.

He’s never had limits. As a child, he was fractious enough that his wealthy father enrolled him in military school to teach him discipline. While there, he began to exhibit his predilection for delegating responsibility while enjoying the privileges of rank. As documented in a story from the Washington Post in January 2016 , a dispute about whether a change in Cadet Trump’s assignment as a senior represented either a promotion, or a lateral move due to a failure in Trump’s ability to control his command, still drew a vitriolic response from Donald Trump decades later. Supposedly Donald was reassigned from a direct command role in his academy to a support staff role because he had overly delegated his authority, resulting in hazing of a younger cadet, who complained. As the reporter for the Post requested comments for the story in 2015, Donald Trump vehemently denied that his reassignment was due to a fault of his own, and he insisted on contacting his then 89 year old instructor from military school and asked him to refute what the Post reporter had discovered. When I saw that story and realized that here was a man running for the office of President, yet so incredibly insecure that he had to refute a story from military school days over 50 years ago, making multiple calls to the Washington Post to refute these allegations, I realized the boy was still firmly in control of the man.

Look at the business career he so proudly wears around his ego. Rules obviously were meant for others, not him. In the 1970’s, the real estate management company he shared with his father was sued by the US Justice Department (see, he’s had reason to not like Justice for a long time) for racial discrimination. His response to the complaints, made years later, was that they didn’t rent to any welfare cases, black or white. He didn’t like the new rules imposed from without, and thus did not deign to follow them.

He never had to answer to anyone else other than lenders during his family company’s existence. He touts his business acumen, but since his companies are private, not public, he never had to answer to shareholders, or a board of directors, or the SEC. No, he was able to shield the public’s eye from the internal financials of the Trump empire, except for those six times when he was forced to restructure debt from his real estate dealings through bankruptcy court. Of course, looking back, it does look rather foolish to have purchased two casinos in the limited gaming market of Atlantic City, then building the Trump Taj Mahal in the same market. Since Donald has never demonstrated an ability to think strategically, who could have foreseen that his new trophy to his ego would cannibalize revenues from his other two Atlantic City casinos? And who could have foreseen the growth in gambling facilitated by states throughout the nation, thus dooming Atlantic City properties to gambling irrelevance? Actually, just about any developer who had an ounce of common sense would have realized that doubling down on Atlantic City was going to generate only fool’s gold. But somehow, even with these failures, the Trump brand grew in status.

Donald hit his stride when he realized the value of his name exceeded his own ability as a developer. By using his brand name, he could leverage his influence by allowing him to manage properties without running the risk of financing these properties. Then came the breakthrough that solidified his status in the eyes of a gullible nation. “You’re Fired” evoked the image of a forceful leader who dispensed his wisdom in boardroom settings without his ever having to get his hands dirty. He had it made! He had the highest rated show in TV history! Women kept fawning over him – and all he had to do was begin to kiss them, he couldn’t help himself. Everywhere he looked, people were deferential to him, people worshiped him, people surrounded him to bask in his charisma.

Except, sadly, it was not enough. It was not enough that only those who watched his TV show paid him the homage he was due, he wanted his wisdom and wit to grace everyone in the nation. Nay, everyone in the world must recognize this super genius who could solve the world’s problems by himself, if only he could grasp the reins of power. The new tools of social media allowed a way for his brilliant thoughts to flow directly to his followers. He used Twitter since 2011 to expound his fantasy that President Obama was not born in the US, keeping himself in the public spotlight. And then, the fateful escalator ride in 2015 where he announced that he was inflicting himself on all of this nation, he made his Presidential announcement. He was grasping for the brass ring that would fulfill him. Life was good.

Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it. So it was with Donald Trump. Despite all odds, his spoken thoughts resonated with a nation that was desperate for a reversal of economic trends that had been in place almost all of Donald Trump’s adult life. There were enough people who believed in the man despite (and in many cases, because of) his bluster and take no prisoners style during the campaign, to elect this man to the office he sought. And now, for the first time, Donald Trump discovered limits imposed upon himself.

He swiftly learned that the Justice Department worked for the nation and under the Constitution, and didn’t serve as the President’s legal arm. Recusal by Jeff Sessions against any investigation of malfeasance in the campaign was taken as a personal slight, that to this day has not been forgiven. concept of an independent judiciary chafed at him, as legal challenges to his travel bans prevented his signature policy goal from taking effect. Then Congress pushed back, and the vagaries of party politics prevented passage of the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

And then, horror of horrors, an independent counsel was appointed. Someone outside of the control of Donald Trump, whose charter was to pursue illegal activities through the campaign, and even before the campaign should these activities be found relevant. Soon, targets of the investigation began to be charged, yet still Donald Trump kept chanting his “No Collusion” mantra. But pressure kept mounting as more and more of his colleagues and appointees either were drawn into legal jeopardy, or demonstrated administrative incompetence through petty purloining of public funds.

Now, this week, with raids by the FBI on Michael Cohen’s residence and office, the next to the last line of defense for this President has been breached. All the sins of the past are about to surface, and the truth will be revealed to the American public. Only, will the American public believe truth once they see it? Has the relentless campaign by Donald Trump to diminish and demean the press and the institutions of the Justice Department succeeded sufficiently where even if clear evidence of misdeeds is revealed, not enough of the base of this man will care? And this Congress, while it still resides in Republican control, will it exonerate Donald Trump before his high crimes and misdemeanors are given a full and just hearing before the eyes and ears of the nation? I hope not, but in this post-truth environment, I fear the worst.

Whatever Happened To The Door-to-Door Refrigerator Magnet Man?

Magnet 1

He called on us in our old house, back around 1991. A slight, stooped man, with hollow cheeks and limited teeth, bringing his wares. He peddled little refrigerator magnets, made out of popsicle sticks, colored felt cut into seasonal shapes, and accented with sequins. He spoke up apologetically, deferentially. “I’m selling these magnets. My daughter is disabled, she makes these, and I go around and sell them. Could you help us out?”

His plain clothes were well-worn, but clean. It was impossible to tell his age, but he looked well over 70. Around here in West Virginia though, people sometimes age at an accelerated rate, so I never knew his age the first time he came around. I bought one of his magnets, a bright yellow felt Christmas tree, and paid him a few dollars that I had in my wallet. He said “Thank-you” and left.

A couple years later, we had moved from Charleston to South Charleston. The same man appeared at our door one day, with his stock of felt magnets. This time, it was a rabbit since it was spring, and Easter was around the corner. The same story about his daughter, and saying how he didn’t want to ask for help, but if we wanted one of his magnets, he’d love us to have one. Again, we bought one for our refrigerator.

Now, these magnets barely had enough strength to hold themselves up, let alone hold any other papers. But the sincerity of this man shone through as he walked the hilly streets of Charleston and South Charleston. Though it was less than two miles as the crow flies between our old and new house, it was several miles further that this man walked, selling his wares and trying to make enough money to support him and his disabled daughter.

This man showed up several more times over the years. Sometimes it was in the heat of summer, and we invited him in and gave him some cool water, as well as buying another magnet. Sometimes, we may have even given him a few dollars without taking one of his magnets, telling him that we already had several. I don’t know how many times he showed up over the years, or how many magnets we bought from him. We still have three of his daughter’s creations gracing our two refrigerators. But just by seeing his face at our door, after months or years of absence, he bore witness to the strength of family, putting himself out on his strenuous walks just to try to make a few dollars.

magnet 2

 

You always notice the presence of something. You notice when a storm comes, or when the sun breaks through the clouds and brings it’s life-giving warmth. You notice the normal traffic on the streets and roads that you drive. What is difficult is to notice the absence of something. In the case of the magnet man, it was probably several years of absence before we brought it up that we hadn’t seen the man for a while. Now, looking back, it has probably been at least 10 years since we last saw the wizened face, with his handful of colorful magnets gracing his gnarled hands. We never saw any mention of him in any local news, although he certainly was known to many of the residents of the Charleston area. No obituary of him caught my attention, although I wasn’t paying as much attention to obituaries 10 years ago as I do now. It will always be one of those mysteries of life that, should we have an afterlife with the ability to form questions and receive answers, one of those questions would be what ever happened to the man who sold us magnets?