The end of the Oilygarchs
To the editor:
Technology never sleeps. When the whaling industry was at its peak, circa 1845, and whale oil was found in almost every lamp lighting the world, a Canadian scientist discovered a method of extracting kerosene from oil shale and the whaling industry went into a long, steady decline. Whale blubber could not compete with petroleum and the whaling fleets, along with its tens of thousands of whalers, fell idle. Fifty years later, by 1900, the 5th biggest industry in the United States a mere five decades earlier was gone.
With the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 we entered the age of burning carbon. Coal, fuel oil, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and their offshoots powered America and the world into an era filled with electric lights, inexpensive transportation and all the modern conveniences we now take for granted. But like whale blubber before it, the age of burning carbon is effectively over.
In 1947, ironically almost 100 years after the invention of kerosene, Bell Labs invented a working transistor. That transistor, the technological heart of the computer, now runs almost everything we use. About this same time, in the early 1950’s meteorologists across the globe began noting that the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere was increasing dramatically. In 1958, high atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii, David Keeling started monitoring the rise of CO2. At the start of the industrial revolution it measured 280 parts per million. Today it stands at more than 400 parts per million and it is, without question, raising the earth’s temperature dramatically.
The Oilygarchs know all of this and the demise of carbon-based energy is their worst nightmare. Russia alone has an estimated 103 billion barrels of oil still trapped beneath the Siberian plains. With crude oil selling today at $47 a barrel those reserves are potentially worth almost five trillion dollars. Now imagine you had a bank vault with that much money in it and suddenly you had scientists from every corner of the globe telling you that the right thing to do would be to leave it buried in the ground and weld the bank vault shot. Why? It’s not just because of its effects on our climate, but because we don’t need oil any longer.
The end of the Oilygarchs isn’t just about climate change, though that is a large part of the equation. It’s about technology. Take the household lightbulb for an example. A typical incandescent bulb lasts 1,000 hours and burns up to 80 percent more energy than an LED lightbulb. Although the LED costs $10 to purchase it lasts 25-50 times longer than the $1 Edison lightbulb and does so by using one fifth the energy. As more and more LEDs replace incandescent bulbs power plants are shutting down. Coal is currently running neck and neck with wind turbine energy and photovoltaic solar’s costs are plummeting. Thanks to automation and mass production the cost of solar generated power will soon drop below the cost of coal. There is no shortage of sunlight, no extraction costs, no ruined atmosphere, no black lung disease and the proven reserves are estimated to be five billion years, which is the life expectancy of our sun.
As these energy efficiencies continue to come online, be it from automation, better battery storage, smart thermostats, self-driving cars, trucks, trains ad infinitum, the demand for carbon based energy will continue to drop. Coal, oil and even natural gas are dying industries and the Oilygarchs are making a goal line stand against the unstoppable forces of this technological revolution. They cannot and will not prevail. They are fighting a war against computers, a chess game if you like, and the computers, with the aid of those countless transistors, will overwhelm them. The bulk of that Russian oil will never leave the plains of Siberia. The Oilygarchs will follow the whalers into oblivion. Technology never sleeps!