Home > Uncategorized > NASA Spends $420 Million to Discover My Back Yard

NASA Spends $420 Million to Discover My Back Yard

May 28th, 2008
Marketing Advertising Blog — VuManhThang.Com

Mars
One of the first images back from the latest trip to Mars shows this patch of ground. I would gladly have allowed NASA to send a probe to my back yard in August. It would have found the same thing: red, rocky, lifeless soil. I'm all for exploring. I love it in fact, so no problems there. But spending $420 million dollars got me thinking on other big projects we, as a nation, need to be moving on, quickly.

I guess I'm at a point where I'm fed up with the federal government and
big oil for not harnessing all the power of their respective resources
to perfect and finish the development of alternative fuel technologies. The Congress should open up oil exploration off the shores of our
nation and allow for the sideway drilling technology into the Denali
National Forest in Alaska to provide us with oil, and time to perfect alternative fuel source technology: water, wind, solar, hydrogen. 

A large percentage of the obscene profits being raked in these
days by big oil should be diverted to alternative fuel technology development, mandated by law. If we are going to be paying $4-$5 a gallon for fuel (which has been the case in Europe for years, by the way). I'd like to think that at the end of the day the profits from these sales will result in stable, alternative fuels that do not require me to be putting cash into the pockets of nations and terrorist groups that would love to kill me and destroy my nation. We put a man on the moon in less than ten years. We can
get this job done too.

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  1. Carrie
    May 28th, 2008 at 09:10 | #1

    I’m trying to think of how to respectfully ask where on earth you came up with your comment about drilling in “Denali National Forest” in Alaska. There is a Denali State Park and a Denali National Park. There has been talk of drilling in such a way all over southcentral and Interior Alaska. Is such drilling environmentally sound? Do you know of the very complicated and shocking surface vs. subsurface rights issues involved in this?
    Will such drilling solve our nation’s energy problems long term or even short term?? Do you not think that there is some value in leaving some small portion of God’s creation untouched and intact? Please stick to your wonderful, insightful and much appreciated commentary on all things Lutheran & theological & Mac! It is really detrimental to the discussion of responsible energy useage and resource development to make such unresearched comments as you have done in today’s blogpost.
    McCain: Carrie, first of all, you are more than free to comment on anything I post on this blog site, as long as the remark falls within the commenting guidelines.
    And, I am, of course, more than free to post anything I want to say on this blog site because, it’s my blog.
    As for “uninformed opinions.” That’s more than a tad presumptious. We can of course disagree on the merits of drilling in the Alaskan national parks and other *huge* federal land reserves there….of course the federal government owns more of Alaska than the state of Alaska.
    But to rule it out of hand for the reasons you cite strikes me as, upon closer scrutiny, a bit of romanticism over against the earth, which God has given to mankind to *subdue* and *have dominion* over.
    There are drilling technologies that permit drilling from *outside* a federal reserve or park, sideways, for miles on end.
    The point I made in the post, bears repeating: this is not a *solution* to the energy problems we face, but it is more than a little silly *not* to use the resources we do have and can control and instead continue to place ourselves, and our nation’s future and security in the hands of people who despise our nation and wish us harm. We know for a fact that oil money funds terrorism. Where do you think Osama came by his money?
    So, fire away, but do not suggest that I should not post on any given topic. And don’t assume that a person you disagree with must, in the nature of the case, by definition, be uninformed.

  2. PHW
    May 28th, 2008 at 14:05 | #2

    Hadn’t heard of the Denali option…don’t forget ANWR!

  3. Carrie
    May 28th, 2008 at 22:30 | #3

    I write to you as a lifelong Alaskan who spent all the summers of my life living on a boat with my family in Prince William Sound. It is not mere romanticism to speak of keeping some small part of God’s creation as He actually created it. We are not simply to have dominion and subdue, but we are called upon to be stewards of what God has given us. Having lived first hand the devastation that comes from subduing without a conscience I feel compelled to point out the oft-overlooked consequence of developing resources at any cost. A lot of critters and a lot of people end up having their lives destroyed. This has not just happened in Alaska. As long as we speak with a parlance of “subdue” and “dominion” and leave out the stewardship portion (which is precisely what is happening now in Alaska) we will have our oil today and create a possible hell on earth for our great-grandchildren tomorrow. A resource is not inevitably to be developed. A tree is not there just to be cut. The presence of oil does not demand drilling. I actually fail to see how the overwhelming federal ownership of land in Alaska has anything to do with the merits of deciding how and where to develop resources in a responsible/productive manner.
    I apologize for saying that you should not comment on certain subjects. That was wrong and I’m sorry. Both my husband and I carefully read your blog posts and are well fed by the matters that you cover and the care with which you blog. THANKS!
    McCain: I love the wilderness and nature too, and grew up on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. I agree we should exercise good stewardship. But good stewardship does not mean not drilling for oil and using the natural resources God created for us to use. I believe this can be done, and should be done, in a way that has the least impact on the environment, but extracting the oil from the earth is part of being a good steward, subduing and having dominion over the earth. The point of using the resources our nation has is precisely for the purpose of buying ourselves time. I am also, and this is a point you seem to have overlooked in my post, adamant that our government is not doing enough to pursue alternative forms of energy: wind, solar and hydrogen. I want to see this happen as soon as possible. I want to see our nation provide leadership for the world to prevent the nightmare scenario you point toward: a world so choked with hydrocarbon pollutants it can never recover: if we do not develop alternative energy sources, I see this happening in the next several generations, with the advent of India and China become major users of oil.
    Thanks for sharing your opinions.

  4. Matthew Surburg
    May 29th, 2008 at 08:02 | #4

    A few thoughts.
    1. Oil is a fungible resource, so opening various areas of Alaska to drilling won’t necessarily affect the price of gas here only. We will see some benefit, but if we as a nation are buying less because we’re using our own supplies, that will drive down the price elsewhere, possibly reducing the benefit we see.
    2. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make use of the oil resources we do have available.
    3. We should exercise every precaution to avoid the disasters seen in times past. It is worth noting statistics I have seen that when Hurricane Katrina struck, over 100 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were destroyed without a single spill. This is a testament to the advances in technology which have occurred in the last 20 years.
    4. In terms of gas prices, we would probably see a bigger benefit by building more refining capacity. Due to environmental policies there have been (I am told) no new refineries built in several decades. The bottleneck may not be at the stage of pumping the oil out of the ground, but rather at the refining stage.
    5. Investing in alternative sources, especially nuclear power, should be a priority. It is silly that we still cower from nuclear power when France makes such robust use of it.
    6. I have to come to the defense of one of Carrie’s original points. We are all “on our game” when we stick to our areas of expertise. C.S. Lewis made this point (in Mere Christianity, I think, but I’d have to look it up) when he noted how he felt comfortable criticizing Freud. He noted that he was not in a position to tackle Freud on psychoanalysis; but when Freud spoke on something he did not know well and Lewis did, linguistics, Freud sounded like a simpleton. I assume Carrie did not mean that Pastor McCain *shouldn’t* talk about things aside from Lutheranism, theology, and Macintoshism. If her point was (without attacking his right to speak) that he was out of his field of expertise, she was quite sound to say so. Of course, I am now outside my field of expertise (medicine) as well.
    7. With all that being said, I still cringe when I hear or read about the “obscene” profits of “big oil.” Who decides what is “obscene?” Don’t rising profits indicate that there is a need for a product or service? Nobody pays voluntarily for something they don’t need (or want). Large profits also invite new investors in a field to increase the supply (absent regulatory obstructions). Also, is “little oil” somehow more virtuous than “big oil?” Getting the stuff out of the ground, refining it, and transporting it to our gas station is a huge undertaking. Who but a “big” industry is able to perform it?
    8. The information I have seen suggests that oil companies are investing heavily in the future of energy – as people use less gas (another effect of rising prices) they will look to other sources. It is in the interest of oil companies to stay ahead of the market. Why make it a government mandate? Will that somehow make them more effective in doing it?
    9. Pastor McCain’s best point is that we are just beginning to see the gas prices that Europe has seen for years. This shouldn’t surprise us. What I don’t fully understand is how we have avoided these high prices for so long. Nevertheless, as China and India, as well as other developing areas, continue to build their economies, we can expect this to continue.
    10. One last question: Where does the Constitution give the federal government authority to pursue alternative forms of energy? Or even to encourage or impede private firms from doing this? I do not imply here that it doesn’t, but I wonder what text those who know the Constitution better than I do would point to as justification.

  5. Steve Gehrke
    May 29th, 2008 at 23:49 | #5

    I learn a lot from Rev. McCain’s blog, but this one entry that I couldn’t resist jumping in on as it lies in an area in which I teach. Our world’s energy crisis is not going to be easily solved because the problem lies not with technology but with the laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics is a statement of conservation of energy: you can get no more energy out of a system than you put into it (with nuclear energy as the only ‘loophole’ – see below). The second law of thermodynamics states that you cannot convert all of the energy put into a system into useful work (‘work’ in the thermodynamics sense is effectively the energy that can run machines, including electricity). Jokingly but accurately, the first law is sometimes stated as “you can’t win’ and the second law is stated as “you can’t break even.”
    Modern society uses massive quantities of energy for things that are the technological hallmarks of modernity: things like transportation, things that allow us to live and work indoors in well-lit rooms whether day or night at comfortable temperatures whether winter or summer, and so on. Therefore, if we do not want to change our lifestyles, we must find equally huge sources of energy (first law), and in fact in quantities far greater than we actually need (second law) to maintain this lifestyle.
    Mechanical energy sources like wind, tides, dams and so forth will never go far toward solving this problem because they are dilute (dispersed in low concentrations over large areas). Chemical energy sources (i.e. fuels) are much more concentrated and versatile than mechanical energy sources, which is why our society is so dependent on them. But there are very few fuels found in nature in the massive quantities at which we need them: the only significant forms are coal (carbon) and hydrocarbons (petroleum, natural gas, oil shale, tar sands and the like). Biofuels are basically solar energy converted to chemical fuel form, but are not an energy source per se. The problem with solar energy is that like mechanical energy sources, it is dilute. Thus harvesting solar energy in the quantities needed by modern society requires vast areas, whether your solar collector is a plant or a photovoltaic cell. Hydrogen, like ethanol, is not found in nature in significant quantities, so if it is to be used as a fuel, it must be manufactured from a primary source. Thus like biofuels, hydrogen is not an energy source, just an energy carrier.
    Einstein has provided the only real way out of this box via his famous equation E=mc^2. Since c, the speed of light is a huge number, this equation says that a small amount of matter can be converted into huge amounts of energy: the only ‘loophole,’ if you will, to the first law of thermodynamics (though this is not easy to accomplish apart from using radioactive uranium, or elements made from uranium like plutonium). Nuclear energy can be considered a tremendously concentrated source of energy that produces tremendously concentrated toxic waste. The fact that the waste is concentrated means that it is quite feasible to store all of the waste that is generated, since the actual volume is small and dense, in contrast to the massive quantities of waste products like the gases carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide (dilute and low toxicity) produced from burning fuel. The key problem, of course, is that the consequences of losing any nuclear waste to the environment can be catastrophic and irreversible.
    The above statements are simple facts (I’m a chemical engineering professor who has taught thermodynamics and done research on clean coal technology). But opinion and politics comes into play as soon as one tries to decide how to balance pros and cons, and there is no uncontestable ‘best’ solution. My personal opinion is that society will have to relay upon a combination of lifestyle change (since a unit saved is a unit not needed, and in fact in most cases, a unit saved is as much as three units of source energy not needed, due to the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics), massive expansion of nuclear power, and a little of everything else (solar power including biofuels, wind energy, drilling in difficult or previously off limits areas, and so on). The best options, or at least the ones implemented, will be determined by politics, not technology
    The bottom line is that there will be no quick and painless fix (or even sort of quick and not too painful). It’s not a failure of technological innovation or human imagination, but a consequence of the laws that God has given us to live under.
    McCain: Thanks for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I agree that there is no easy, quick solution, but we better get much more busy finding one. And….unlike oil reserves, we do have abundant supplies of hydrogen, unless you are going to tell me that we might use up our “hydrogen reserves” which means I will schedule a deep depression for myself this weekend. Thanks Steve. Good stuff.

  6. Steve Gehrke
    May 30th, 2008 at 11:28 | #6

    Rev. McCain – Thanks for the compliment. The first part of a solution is understanding the problem, and the biggest issue here is recognizing exactly how much energy we require to maintain our current lifestyle. If we know we are going to lose a job that pays $100,000/yr, it does not solve our pending family budget crisis to seek assurance in the fact that there are a lot of minimum wage jobs out there for which we can apply. We need to start thinking about how we are going to find another $100,000/yr job – or start making plans to live on $20,000/yr. That’s basically the analogy to the situation I see that large segments of society have been taking with regard to our current energy problems: either people haven’t looked at the numbers when they say ‘we’ll use wind and solar energy instead of fossil fuels,’ or else they say that technology will eventually solve the problem, when all technology can do is transform one form of energy into a more useful form: it can’t create the energy in the first place (except by using nuclear fission or in principle nuclear fusion, though no one’s ever been able to make fusion work to create net energy).
    Parenthetically, I just happened to hear on NPR this morning that uranium prices have skyrocketed faster than oil and uranium stockpiles have been depleted, so there is now interest in resuming uranium mining. Apparently the US’s uranium mines (now closed) are on Navajo reservations, and the mine wastes have contaminated the soil and given the people there health problems, so they do not want the mines re-opened. So this will require a political solution, not a technological one, as will be true for almost all energy issues.
    And we have no hydrogen reserves in the sense of hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen fuel is hydrogen gas (H2) and this is found in only trace amounts in the atmosphere and there are no underground hydrogen reserves for which to drill. Unlike carbon or petroleum, hydrogen gas is far too reactive to accumulate in the environment so it has to be made, not mined. Since hydrogen gas must be manufactured – which is governed by the laws of thermodynamics – to gain a unit of energy of hydrogen fuel, you must have a source of energy that is greater than that unit of fuel. So to say that we are going to solve our energy problems with hydrogen fuel is like saying that we don’t have to worry about losing our $100,000 job because we’ll still have our checkbook and credit cards. Of course the checkbook and credit cards are simply convenient means of moving our money around, they don’t create money. Similarly, hydrogen fuel is only (potentially) a convenient way of moving energy around.
    To expand on this a bit more, hydrogen gas releases a great deal of energy when it reacts with oxygen (think Hindenberg), with water as the only product. So that sounds great…except that currently hydrogen gas is usually made either from natural gas (a hydrocarbon, so that doesn’t solve the fuel source problem) or by electrolysis of water…and while we won’t run out of water, where will we get the electricity to carry out the electrolysis? And remember that the laws of thermodynamics say that we will need more electrical energy to make the hydrogen gas than we can get out of the gas when we use it as fuel.
    Thermodynamically, hydrogen gas is at the top of the hill, and burning it to produce water drops it down to the bottom of the hill, releasing energy as it falls. Since water is at the bottom of the hill with nowhere to go, it cannot be used to make any energy itself. So you need energy to push the hydrogen atoms in the water back up to the top of the hill, regenerated in the form of hydrogen gas. Exactly the same argument applies to burning coal or hydrocarbons to produce carbon dioxide as well as water. CO2, like water, is at the bottom of the thermodynamic hill, and useless as an energy source.
    So it is true that we’ll never run out of hydrogen (atoms) just as it is also true that we’ll never run out of carbon (atoms). But we need an energy source to make the hydrogen gas. Advances in technology might find different ways to make hydrogen gas or use hydrogen gas, but technology can’t change the fact that for every unit of hydrogen energy needed as fuel, an energy source of greater than one unit is required to make it (nearly three times more if powerplant electricity is used to make the hydrogen).
    Like economics in the social sciences, thermodynamics can be considered a ‘dismal science’. It tells you what you CAN’T do, no matter how clever you are. There are people who refuse to accept these laws and believe they have outsmarted them (e.g. google Joseph Newman Perpetual Motion), but I doubt there are any scientific laws that are more conclusively proven in more different ways to greater accuracy than the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
    I hope you don’t find this posing too depressing – at least please finish the new study Bible first! I had been hoping that CPH would produce that even before you announced it on your blog recently!
    [McCain: So, Mr. Doom and Gloom, what is YOUR proposal to deal with the fact that we are running out of oil and the increase use of hydrocarbons is screwing up our planet's environment?
    ]

  7. Steve Gehrke
    May 31st, 2008 at 01:22 | #7

    Mr. Doom and Gloom? Me? And Mr. Vehse, all I can say is “so, at last we meet again” (having seen your secret identity unmasked on Augsburg1530) and twirl the tip of my mustache.
    OK, let me take a stab at solving all the world’s energy problems before bedtime, then I want to wrap up with a comment about doom, gloom, theology and technology (my interest in the intersection of the latter two being the hook that drew me into this discussion).
    I’ll be referring to the US government’s official statistics on energy sources and energy consumption available in more detail than you really want to know at http://www.eia.doe.gov/aer/overview.html The documents at this site provide the specifics to support my previous general arguments and discussed below.
    Diagram 1 in the overview document shows that about 8% of our energy comes from nuclear power, under 7% from all renewable energy sources, and 85% from fossil fuels (about 23% coal, 22% natural gas and 40% petroleum). So clearly we aren’t anywhere close to being able to meet our energy needs without relying on carbon-based fossil fuels, nor will we be able to any time soon.
    Figure 2a in the report Energy Consumption by Sector, we see that 21% of the US energy consumption is residential, 28% transportation, 18% commercial, 32% industrial. So clearly the way we use energy in our daily life is as significant as the way it is used in the business sector. Figure 2.1b is also very revealing: electrical loss is by far the major consumer of energy in the residential and commercial sectors, roughly half of the total required by each of these sectors. Only in transportation is electrical loss not a dominant consumer of energy, because transportation relies almost exclusively on petroleum,
    So if electrical loss is the dominant consumer of energy in the US, then surely one might think that there must be a technological solution to overcome this massive loss of energy? The answer is buried in a note on the last page of the document: 67% of fuel energy is lost when converted to electricity, 5% is lost by the generating plant, and 9% is lost in transmission. The 67% loss is the Second Law constraint that I was talking about earlier – there is no possible way on earth to eliminate this loss by any significant amount: this is what I was talking about earlier when I said you need 3 units of fuel energy to produce 1 unit of electricity in a power plant (1produced/3 consumed or 2 lost/3 consumed = 67%). Check out Carnot’s Theorem on Wikipedia for brief explanation.
    Anyway, the DOE report goes on and on and on in this vein, my point here being that the government knows very well where our energy comes from and where it goes; there is nothing to debate in this regard. It is also quite clear that we’re not remotely able to live without fossil fuels. Furthermore, we as private individuals in aggregate consume nearly as much energy as the commercial/business sector, so this is not an issue we can expect to be solved by someone else allowing us to remain passive. These are the basic facts. In contrast, everything below is highly contestable!
    So with this lengthy preamble, since Rev. McCain asked, here are my basic opinions on the subject. First of all, we’re not going to be able to give up fossil fuels anytime soon, no matter the environmental concerns, no matter how deeply indebted we become to OPEC countries, simply no matter what.
    The quickest and easiest way to reduce our need for fossil fuels is conservation, no matter how unpopular this made Jimmy Carter in the 70s, no matter how much I hate driving 55 mph, no matter how much I hate shivering in the winter and sweating in the summer (note that there is no thermodynamic penalty to home heating by burning fuel, but there is a substantial thermodynamic penalty to air conditioning, so sending people from the Sun Belt back to the Midwest and Northeast will help). Technology can help out significantly here: because of the thermodynamic penalty for converting fuel to electricity, saving electricity has a multiplier effect with regard to fuel consumption. That is, saving one unit of electricity saves 3 units of power plant energy. Basically, any technology that reduces heat generation in electrical devices has a major impact (since heat = waste except when burning fuel directly for heat). For example, replacing incandescent lights with CFLs and LEDs and replacing CRTS with flat screen monitors and TVs can have a big impact since lighting is a major consumer of electricity (not considering any differences in energy cost or production of these devices).
    So one key is conservation. Those of us who remember the 70’s know the drill. Just don’t try running for public office on this platform.
    The next key to our energy problems is nuclear power. It takes a decade or two to bring a nuclear power plant on line, so we need to get moving on this. The public was unaffected by 3-Mile Island, and Chernobyl was a product of the Soviet system (in operation as well as construction), so there are no reasonable safety concerns beyond that of any other heavy industry, probably less than most. And yes, we do know what to do with the nuclear waste: either bury it in Nevada, or reprocess it as Mr. Vehse suggests (before he takes a hard left into sci-fi land). Again, don’t try to run for office in Nevada on this platform.
    The third key is a to develop a little bit of everything else that the technologically clever can dream up. None of these alternatives individually will substantially replace fossil fuels, but in aggregate they can become significant. Here the challenge is to avoid pork barrel programs and to focus on the best solutions for the country (and world) and not what’s best for a particular congressional district. Once again, good luck getting elected on that platform, unless you can keep it in the realm of hypothetical platitudes.
    Fourthly, we need to drill and mine whatever fossil fuel we can lay our hands on. This does nothing but buy time to get the previous programs going, but there’s not going to be much choice once political realities eventually kick in. $100+/barrel oil makes a lot of things possible (and probable) that made no sense when it was $20-40/barrel. I’ve even contemplated driving 60 MPH on the interstate even without a government mandate now that it cost $60 to fill up my compact car today (hasn’t happened yet though) However, this is going to erode our standard of living, erode the US’s global standing, and degrade our environment.
    Now I didn’t think my previous posts were doom and gloom, but I agree that this one is! However, despite all of this, we in the US will still be doing well by all historical standards, and the US will still be better off than the vast majority of people on earth. And this of course is considering our American lives selfishly only in terms of material goods. Poorer countries will suffer more, but they also will have the chance to avoid the American decisions that have locked us into high per capita energy consumption for decades to come, such as building our cities to accommodate the automobile.
    But of course, as Christians, our ultimate fate is not tied to any of these things. And I’m sure everyone reading this blog knows that. And while I may know more about energy than most people, I read and listen to what orthodox Lutheran pastors and teachers like Rev. McCain write because I don’t know as much about what ultimately matters in life (theology) as they do.
    At the same time, I do think it is important for the technically and scientifically knowledgeable to communicate with theologian and pastors on issues like this as they do significantly affect our lives on earth and how we view God’s creations. The reasons why I think this is important are laid out in my essay “Where Technology meets Theology” published in Logia, Vol. IX, No. 1 pp, 60-62 (2000). I hadn’t read it in years myself, but I checked tonight, and yes I did mention alternative energy!

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