Have you ever heard of Charles Babbage or a device he designed and almost built called an Analytical Engine around 1840? Even though it was purely mechanical, it was by some accounts the first full-blown Turing-complete computer with the capacity to process, store answers and even carry the result forward, i.e., loop memory. Babbage's engine was never completed, but an entire genre of science fiction and future history has grown up around the possibility it had been.
The idea, so the story goes, led to better and more compact mechanical designs eventually bordering on near nanotech-like breakthroughs enabling all sorts of interesting robotic and cybernetic devices. Eventually, with the invention of telegraph and telephones, and the lines to carry complex signals, the Info Age dawned in 1890 or so, a full century early. This initial wave of the sci-fi genre remained fairly obscure throughout the reality of the 1990s. But a lot of the people who read it were also into programming, some went on to develop video games, or contribute to movies and series, so the fashion and art influence grew and evolved in different ways in a second wave.
That alternative history is called Steampunk, a play on Cyberpunk. But in some ways, we do live in a steamy-punkish world. The most visible technology may be Wi-Fi and iPhones and social media. But what drives it, the underlying industrial infrastructure mostly unseen by today's smartphone user, is the wheels of industry. Gears and turbines, cogs and chains, powered by burning gas, oil and coal, turning water into steam to produce the electricity that runs the whole shebang. If we are successful in converting automobiles and maybe even one day trucks and barges to electric, they too will plug into that growing, smoky grid.
Which brings up some touchy subjects, not the least of which is the Bakken Shale and the Keystone pipeline that would carry the raw sludge.
Join in below the fold and we'll talk about that some more.
The Keystone Pipeline system already exists, it's been transporting crude from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Canada, to US refineries for years. The debate is over an extension called Phase IV, often referred to as Keystone XL, shown in green to the right. This phase is currently planned to consist mostly of pipe sections about three feet wide that move oil over 1,000 miles, from both the Canadian Basin and parts of the Bakken formation that lay just south of the border.
Sadly, that's a real concern. Think of the US side of Niagara Falls, water endlessly plunging over the distinctive scarp into the river, only think of it flowing with nasty black oil heading into refineries and engines instead of sparkling water landing in frothy pools. That's not a bad, representative image for how much oil the world burns every second, with the US leading the pack. When that supply is threatened or curtailed, the price goes up. The cost increase cascades through our entire economy and beyond.
Do not underestimate the political ramifications of sharply higher energy prices on the US electorate. Oil shock and the associated inflation helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House over 30 years ago, deficits soared and the social safety net was cut almost to the day he was sworn in, and it didn't stop there. Energy prices have dominated our post Cold War foreign policy. The whole tragic trillion dollar train wreck of Iraq was made possible, some might say falsely hyped, by concerns over global energy prices and national security. All items to seriously consider going forward. But the immediate objections are environmental and can briefly be classified in two parts: 1) the impact of the pipeline itself on the surrounding region, and 2) the impact greenhouse gases released by burning the oil could have on global climate.
On the regional impact, any development alters the natural environment. A carefully planned hike and bike trail will have some effect, maybe in some cases a negative one, let alone big industrial developments involving megatons of toxic substances moving over rich farm and ranch land relying on fragile, underground aquifers. We know for a recent historical fact that that kind of thing can have terrible consequences. It's worth noting here this isn't limited to Keystone XL, the same applies to other domestic energy sources and many other industries in general. But the idea that there's never going to be a nasty spill or other problems is complete nonsense. Of course there will be. Our best defense, aside from not building it, is to limit the frequency and scope of accidents as much as possible, and be prepared for one when it happens. Neither is possible without well-defined, well-enforced regulations and related incentives.
On the global impact, this oil will be produced and burned regardless of what pipes carry it to what refineries. That's a sobering thought. NASA climatologist Dr. James Hanson has written and said many times that if we are so foolish as to burn all fossil fuels, including all coal, all gas, and all tar sands, the climate catastrophe could runaway to the point that it becomes uncontainable. Way beyond the delightful, quaint fiction of a Steampunk planet segue.
In fact, some climatologists worry continued fossil fuel use resulting in more than 350-400 ppm of tropospheric greenhouse gases could ultimately trigger a climate shift approaching or surpassing the Permian-Triassic extinction, where 90 percent of land and marine species perished 250 million years ago. It is even possible such an event could speed up the Earth's slow but inevitable descent into a runaway greenhouse loop, a phenomenon some researchers predict could—hopefully in the very distant future—end with our planet resembling a slightly cooler version of Venus. Our best course of action, assuming we wish to avoid finding out, is to not burn every last shred of fossil fuels we can dig up, preferably by developing new, cleaner energy sources well ahead of time.
Politicians and media outlets are fond of simplistic slogans that can fit on a bumper sticker. But most modern issues are fiendishly complex and this is certainly one of them. The stakes are about as high as they get and there's a lot of moving parts to consider, not to mention plenty of motives, measured in gigabucks, to spin and understate the risk to regulators and voters. One school of thought voiced by the occasional progressive is, since the oil will be produced anyway, we get as much as we can legislatively in return for permitting Keystone XL to go through. What exactly that should be is a great discussion to have. But it must include sharp regulations and meaningful penalties for companies that screw up. And there should be substantial funding, from industry or government or both, on mitigating the regional and global impact as well as energy alternatives, from solar to smarter grids, to get us off this crazy, unsustainable fossil fuel treadmill.
That being said, please respect the views of those who feel this is a line that must be held as well as those who feel it is a battle we will eventually lose. Especially if you take the poll and weigh in via comments below.