Oil remains king; it still reigns over us

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This is a live shot of a scene that's become all too familiar. Oil is still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico; it's been flowing into the sea since British Petroleum's (BP) Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22.

I'm sure that, aghast at the sight of catastrophe day after day, you've changed your lifestyle considerably in the last month or so. You've greatly cut down on the amount of energy you use, haven't you?

You haven't? Don't worry, I'm not writing this as a diatribe against the ever increasing need we have in the United States for energy. I haven't changed my daily habits since the oil rig accident; while coastal birds near Louisiana were being submerged in oil this morning, I took my usual hot shower.

As you watch the live video of the oil gushing from the ocean floor, the estimates of just how much crude is spilling into the gulf vary widely. The most optimistic view puts the rate at 19,000 barrels per day. The experts' worst-case scenario states that as much as 100,000 barrels per day are flowing into the gulf.

While we fret about the long-range, devastating impact that this accident will have on everything from the gulf's ecosystem to the economy of states that border that body of water, we press on, continuing a lifestyle that makes it likely that something like this will happen again in our lifetimes.

Opinion pieces in newspapers often identify a problem and offer suggestions for solving it. The problem is rather obvious. For a good part of this century, oil powered the economic engine of this country, making it an industrial giant.

Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep that giant fed. And right now, its favorite food is oil. And we can fret about oil spills and talk about developing alternative "green" sources of energy until we all turn blue in the face, but talk is easy.

Trying to survive day-to-day in the United States and in other industrial countries without oil is, at least for now, impossible.

So, since a solution to this problem of oil doesn't seem readily apparent, perhaps the best thing we all can do is put everything in its proper perspective, so that eventually we can concentrate on the proper ways to kick our oil addiction.

There's a good reason that BP is drilling more than a mile below sea level to try to collect oil. Just the United States alone consumes 20 million barrels of crude every day.

The disaster in the gulf will likely, if it hasn't already, elicit an outcry for the development of alternative, renewable energy sources. It was a topic that was even addressed at a recent Vermillion city council candidate forum, although Hyperion, not the gulf oil spill, inspired the talk about developing energy alternatives.

Alternative energy is a non-solution, really, at this moment. We get a warm feeling as we drive by wind farms or see the dams on the Missouri River, to view electricity being generated cleanly, in a manner that gives us a seemingly endless supply.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) the sum total of all renewable energy – solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and wind – generated in the United States in 2007 accounted for 7 percent of our nation's total energy needs that year.

Coal accounted for 22 percent of our nation's energy that year, natural gas provided 23 percent, nuclear electric power met 8 percent of our needs, and petroleum, which comes from oil, naturally, takes up the biggest slice of our energy pie at 40 percent.

Don't be surprised, especially here in South Dakota during an election year, to hear politicians, agribusiness lobbyists and others who are sincerely concerned about our addiction to oil, particularly imported oil, argue that it is time to expand ethanol production even more.

It's another non-solution. Here's why:

When it is refined, a barrel of crude yields several different "cuts" that range from light products, such as butane, to heavy products, such as asphalt. Even the most technologically advanced oil refineries cannot produce just one product from a barrel of crude – they must produce several, and the market value of those various cuts is constantly changing.

The problem for the ethanol advocates is that there's very little growth in gasoline demand, while the demand for other cuts of the barrel is booming. In other words, writes Robert Bryce in Slate magazine, corn ethanol producers are making the wrong type of fuel at the wrong time. They are producing fuel that displaces gasoline at a time when gasoline demand – both in the United States and globally – is essentially flat.

Meanwhile, demand for the segment of the crude barrel used to make diesel fuel and jet fuel is growing rapidly. And corn ethanol cannot replace diesel or jet fuel, the liquids that propel the vast majority of our commercial transportation machinery.

It is a bit of irony so easily dismissed by ethanol supporters, but it can't be ignored: the diesel fuel needed to power the tractors that plant and eventually harvest corn, and that drive the transport semis that deliver the corn to an ethanol plant and take the ethanol away from the plant, are powered by diesel.

I'm not advocating that we simply give up on what I've identified as non-solutions to supplying our energy needs. I'm hopeful that research and development, advances in technology, and perhaps a scientific miracle or two will one day have us all driving around in "Back To The Future" Delorians powered by what we can empty out of our trash cans.

Until that happens, though, we must be prepared to live in a world where petroleum and coal are king, and where sadly disasters like the one still ongoing in the gulf will remain likely.

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