The improbable environmentalists

30 07 2008

I would like to tell you today about 2 renowned Texas oil billionaires who have recently taken public stances to move away from fossil fuels, oil in particular.

The first is T Boone Pickens Jr, a legendary oil man, who recently lauched the so-called Pickens plan, an initiative to free the US from foreign oil imports. His plan is focused on wind, solar and natural gas, the latter being scarcely carbon-free – and clearly that’s not his concern. There’s nothing revolutionary in the technologies he is advocating – but his business model and PR seem to push the envelope. An interesting fact is that he has heavily contributed to George W Bush’s campaigns, so can scarcely be accused of being a communist, like the Marietta nitwits I was mentioning in the previous post.

The second is Matthew Simmons, also a leader in the oil industry. Simmons is a pundit on Peak Oil, which he believes was reached some time in 2005. You can read more about his conversion here, and look at his very informative speeches here. I heard about Simmons in an interview in GOOD Magazine, which makes clear that he is also a confessed Republican, and one not too concerned about the urgency of global warming.

Power quote :

“If we don’t create a solution to the enormous potential gap between our inherent demand for energy, and the availability of energy we will have the nastiest and last war we’ll ever fight. I mean a literal war.”

As a potential solution, Simmons is advocating an unlikely alchemy : Oil to Seawater. He is spearheading the Ocean Energy Institute, which aims at assessing the electricity generation potential of ocean currents. A little science here from yours truly : if you can make wind turbines, you can make water turbines. There are plenty of steady currents in the ocean, whose power dwarf almost anything we can think of. Cyclical currents like those due to tides have also been recognized for a long time (tidal mills were used by the Romans), albeit never developed to a significant extent. As a French kid, I heard about tidal energy generation  because of a pilot project started in our oil-poor land  in the 60’s on the La Rance river. Given that there are only 2 other plants like this in the world, the principle can hardly be said to have gone viral, but it could be because the field of ocean power generation is still in its infancy. Interesting readers can learn about tidal power here.

The oceans, due to their inertia, are an inherently more steady source of mechanical energy than the atmosphere for us humans. So the upside is that ocean power is much more predictable than wind power. The downside, has every seaman will tell you, is that the ocean eats everything : seawater is extremely corrosive, hence sea-worthy equipment is very expensive.  There is still much that we don’t know about the feasibility and scalability of ocean energy generation for our power-hungry civilization,  and I will be extremely keen on seeing what Simmon’s institute comes up with. It is especially interesting to be looking above the low-hanging fruits and trying to tap into the ~3.7 TW of gravitational potential energy that the Moon and the Sun give to our fluid envelopes, ocean and atmosphere [source].

I think both examples are remarkable in that neither man is remotely close to a Greenie Hippie, yet has understood the economic and national security implications of the current oil crisis. As entrepreneurs, they are wasting no time in finding solutions, because their is tremendous economic incentive to do so. Since they have a few horses in the race, it would be easy to claim that they are merely advertising their latests investments, but I believe the story runs deeper.

I hope it gives food for thought to everyone, irrespective of political leanings.

El Niño

PS : Since i am not an expert on peak oil, and for the sake of offering a balanced outlook, I hereby refer readers to this excellent blog on Peak Oil.

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3 responses

22 11 2008
EliRabett

Pickens as the saying goes owns a lot of drilling rights and gas in W. Texas. What did you expect?

24 11 2008
El Niño

Well, I guess I was expecting him to be ONLY about gas and oil. He’s obviously smarter than that, and holds enough sway in the business that he’ll hopefully shake things up in the right direction.

22 06 2010
joan

Looks like T. Boone Pickens Jr. and his plan are resurfacing due to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster (I caught him on the news recently).

At this point any improvement to the energy situation is welcome. Let’s hope he will shake things up in the right direction.

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