Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Utah Coal Mine Troubles

The strange saga of Robert Murray and the coal mining disaster in Utah continues. It got my undivided attention when I heard the claims that the disaster was caused by an earthquake. The seismic activity in most of the Rocky Mountains is relatively quiet but a manmade disaster can be big enough to show up on seismographs. Somebody seemed to be pushing the argument for what happened backwards. Nine people died and the families deserve the facts, and not the usual spin that seems prevalent in the current Bush era.

The Salt Lake Tribune has been covering the disaster closely and here's an article by Robert Gehrke that raises a number of questions:
Robert Murray insists that his company did not change the mining plan at Crandall Canyon after purchasing a joint interest in the mine last August.

But documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune clearly contradict Murray's assertion, and show that Murray's company sought and received approval from federal regulators to make a significant, and, experts say, risky change to the mining strategy.

Records of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show that, after Murray acquired a 50 percent ownership in the mine on Aug. 9, 2006, his company repeatedly petitioned the agency to allow coal to be extracted from the north and south barriers - thick walls of coal that run on both sides of the main tunnels and help hold up the mine.

That stands in stark contrast to statements Murray made Monday asserting that his company's mine plan, and that of the previous owner, were one and the same.


Documents on file with the Utah Division of Oil Gas and Mining show Andalex [the previous owner] had previously decided not to mine those barriers, determining it posed a risk to worker safety.

The article doesn't let the Bush Administration off the hook either. The MSHA took only seven business days to approve Murray's plan; given the serious safety issues involved and previous concerns, that seems rather quick. I'm also puzzled by the term, 'bump.' I don't know if that's a term used by miners or a euphemism used by owners. If my car tire suddenly goes flat, that's not a bump, it's a blowout.

In an era of high energy prices and high demands, we are going to see people push safety issues to the limit. We are going to see it in our country and we're going to see it elsewhere. I know enough about industry to know how safety can easily be chipped away so that people are put in increasing danger until somebody blows a whistle or disaster strikes. Business owners may not like regulation but there's usually a sad history behind the regulations and when it comes to safety, there are no excuses.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Iran and Iraq: Reality Check Update

The possibility of a military attack against Iran seems to be on the table again despite many experts who agree it would be a strategic blunder. After nearly five years, it is still an effort to get it into the heads of the mainstream media that Iraq itself was a strategic blunder . One could qualify that statement by saying the Iraq fiasco was a strategic blunder made worse by ineptitude. But at this late date it is sheer stubbornness to say it was only ineptitude that was the problem (and let the media please stop pretending that the war in Iraq had anything to do with the war on terror or 9/11 and acknowledge how ridiculously convoluted neocon arguments have been about Iraq for ten years).

We have a right-wing president with the classic flaws of a reactionary: stubbornness, an inflated sense of one's abilities (or intuition) and a tendency to respond to failure by blaming others and demanding more power. President Bush may also be looking at his lame duck status as an excuse to do as he pleases. A military attack on Iran would still be an uphill battle for Bush and Cheney to pull off but the seriousness of such a blunder requires once again watching Cheney and Bush closely.

Steve Clemons of The Washington Note has a post on the renewed possibility of a strike against Iran. What I get out of his quick though thoughtful asssessment is a sobering view of a White House that continues to be largely clueless about the president's failed foreign policy and the dangers his policies pose to our economy and our national security. At this late date, given all that we know, why is President Bush and Vice President Cheney still taken seriously? And why are so many neocons, in general, still signing off on policies that make no sense? In industry, when people utter nonsense to the media, it's usually a sign those same people are receiving large sums of money from somewhere. Is this the problem? If so, who is the source of that money? I don't know the answer.

In another post, Clemons also talks about Ken Adelman, a neocon whose ideas have done much damage to our country but who seems to be rethinking some of his positions in retrospect and in reference to Iran; here's part of an interview Clemons quoted:
MORTMAN: Should we invade Iran?

ADELMAN: I would not use the military in Iran. I would squeeze the sanctions as hard as we can. I would go to the Saudis and the Persian Gulf countries, and have them pressure the Europeans, saying they just have to crack down. I don't think the Bush Administration has done anything with the Saudis that's worthwhile.

MORTMAN: Your thoughts on the presidential race?

ADELMAN: I've been disappointed. It seems that there are no new ideas coming out of the presidential race. 1980 we had the Reagan Doctrine, supply side economics, SDI -- all these were ideas, they were new ideas. I haven't heard anything new from either side. I'm disappointed.

MORTMAN: Your thoughts on the Bush legacy?

ADELMAN: Bush is a person who had good ideas but could not implement them. The first MBA president was the worst administrative leader, the most un-MBA-ish president. He didn't set goals, he didn't hold people accountable. He just engaged in happy talk. He thought words were all people needed, instead of a realistic approach. A failed presidency based on that.

Adelman makes a couple of useful points but he is still very much behind the curve. The notion that Bush 'had good ideas' is a bit ludicrous. Bush had little interest in foreign policy until somewhere around late 1998 when he started considering a presidential run and received tutorials from various neocons and others (if he listened to these 'experts' the way he apparently listens to other experts, it's unclear what exactly he absorbed). The agenda of the neocons was never very clear to me and I doubt they were ever really willing to explain their agenda to the American people but, neverthess, I suspect the neocons were largely used by the Bush inner circle who were even less forthright when it came to explaining their real objectives. It's unacceptable at this late date to believe that democracy was ever high on the agenda for the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney or Karl Rove.

In the end, Bush and Cheney's foreign policy is hardly distinguishable from the kind of reactionary nonsense that was pushed by the John Birch Society back in the 50s and 60s during the Cold War. It's worth remembering that the John Birchers considered Chiang Kai Shek a 'democratic leader.' Chiang was about as democratic as Franco or Mussolini. Absent the Soviets, a vaguely defined threat from the Middle East was used by today's Republicans to justify a long series of foreign policy nonsense. It's become obvious that 9/11 was used to justify poorly considered ideas that were already in the cooker when Bush became president.

Most Democrats in Congress understand the Bush problem but it's not certain that they have the votes despite a slim majority. It would behoove Republicans and the small number of Democrats overly impressed with the Bush's foreign policy to look long and hard at the consequences of an attack on Iran. The shakiness of Wall Street in recent weeks and the fact that its shakiness may well be a function of bad Republican economic policies over the last twenty-six years, is a sign, in my view, that it's time for our country to grasp the terms of the 21st century and start moving in a different direction.

Congress must get its act together. Failing that, the American voters need to send people to Washington willing to tackle reality rather than embracing reactionary fantasies. The United States is slipping. In the end, only the voters can save this country. For the moment, the Democrats remain the best bet, if the best candidates can be found. But the future still comes down to the American people and whether they are willing to engage the future and reform a Washington clearly dominated by a right wing machine that is adept at public relations and very short on everything else.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Oil: Temporary Turbulence or Worlwide Crisis?

We have known since the 1970s that oil is more of a finite resource than we thought it was. Early predictions dating from the 1930s had us awash in oil for many generations to come. The supply of natural gas in the United States, alone, was supposed to be good for perhaps as long as 500 years, by which time it was assumed we would find other sources of energy. Certainly the optimism was high after the Middle Eastern discoveries of the 1940s. But US production in the lower 48 began to fall in the 1970s. The other noteworthy development is that worldwide, for the last twenty years, new oil discoveries have totaled fewer and fewer millions of barrels and those barrels are harder to reach and more expensive to produce. And those new discoveries, on average, are not keeping pace with consumption.

Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we need to find new sources of energy to replace the powerful source of energy we call fossil fuels, fuels, in fact, that took millions of years for the earth to form. Obviously, we don't have millions of years if we wish to maintain our way of life. Fossil fuels take several forms but the most useful include light sweet crude and natural gas. This is what we get out of the oil fields that are increasingly the center of attention whether in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere.

The problem is that no one knows for sure when worldwide oil production will begin to fall, not because of economic or political vagaries but simply because we will not find enough new oil deposits to make up for the depletion of existing oil fields. We know the day will come when producers will not be able to match the production of previous years. Some argue the day has already arrived and some say it will come in the next five to ten years and others, using varying definitions of liquid fuels, extend the day twenty to fifty years down the road. The last group is becoming smaller as the price of oil continues to climb. Worldwide demand for oil is high these days and we are finding that meeting worldwide demand has become problematic. The truth is that no one knows exactly what is going on.

US oil production and the size of our reserves are to a large extent public knowledge and this is the case for some countries around the world. It's not that difficult, for example, to find good honest numbers about North Sea oil production. It is very difficult, however, to find good verifiable numbers for those oil-producing nations that belong to OPEC. Oil numbers for countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are not transparent, though members of OPEC tend to assure us everything is fine.

Making predictions is a hard business; so it is extremely useful to have hard data. But even hard data can't make up for things not easily seen at the time. In the 1930s, when future supplies of oil were being discussed, no one imagined the many uses of fossil fuels that would enter our lives and no one really anticipated the worldwide population explosion and the rising economies that would emerge in coming decades. Given the consequences of indifference, though, you deal with the data at hand the best you can.

Sometimes, in the absence of hard data, we start looking at bits and pieces of evidence. Out of those bits and pieces, it's possible sometimes to construct a simple hypothesis that might be proved or disproved over time.

One hypothesis that has interested me is the possibility that the seriousness of the current oil crunch may be partially hidden because wealthy countries are benefitting from poor countries (and perhaps poorer areas within some countries with above average GDP) who can no longer afford the high price of oil, thus making more oil available for wealthier countries. This would distort the worldwide picture of oil use. Like I said, this is hypothetical.

In a recent article by Michael Wine in The New York Times, the energy situation in Africa was examined, though the article focused on power generation:
Power blackouts — “load shedding,” in utility jargon — are hardly novel in sub-Saharan Africa, where many electricity grids remain chewing-gum-and-baling-wire affairs. Even so, this year is different. Perhaps 25 of the 44 sub-Saharan nations face crippling electricity shortages, a power crisis that some experts call unprecedented.

The causes are manifold: strong economic growth in some places, economic collapse in others, war, poor planning, population booms, high oil prices and drought have combined to leave both industry and residents short of power when many need it most.

“We’ve had no significant capital injection into generation and transmission, from either the private or public sectors, for 15, maybe 20 years,” said Lawrence Musaba, the manager of the Southern African Power Pool, a 12-nation consortium of electricity utilities at the continent’s tip.


Once a major power exporter, Uganda now blacks out parts of its capital, Kampala, for as much as a day at a time and has leased two 50-megawatt generators, burning diesel at a time of record oil prices. The demand for hydropower in Uganda and its neighbors, with drought, is blamed by some for a steady reduction in the water level of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest.

Uganda’s gas stations are now short of diesel for vehicles — in part, paradoxically, because power shortages are shutting down a pipeline from Kenya. News reports say the nation has spent enough on diesel-fueled power generation to build two hydroelectric dams.

The article presents a very complex picture and I admit that it's not clear if it illuminates my hypothesis. But I've been reading articles periodically over the last two years about fuel shortages in various African countries as well as elsewhere. Are the shortages due to the high price of oil or are the shortages due to infrastructure problems or even a mix of the two? It is not an easy question to resolve.

Dave Cohen of the Energy Bulletin has a post called "What about the poor?" that attempts to examine what is happening in poorer countries; he offers anecdotal evidence and then his post goes on to say:
The sporadic, almost anecdotal, nature of such stories in the press hides the systematic reduction of oil consumption in the developing world. The poorer countries get priced out of the market, or can not obtain the fuels they require when supplies are tight. The western press rarely covers the issue. Stories that address the problem surface, and are then forgotten. (See Toiling in the Dark: Africa's Power Crisis, New York Times, July 29, 2007.) Web searches often turn up reports from 2005, when oil prices first hit $70/barrel. Press accounts from the developing world are hard to find. These stories tend to report on local events, and assume some knowledge of local conditions. Some commentators in peak oil circles have labeled these events with the unorthodox (for economists) term "demand destruction", but the phenomenon is poorly documented..

The problem created by high oil prices is widespread, as Africa's Energy Crisis Worsens: Viable Clean Energy Alternatives Are Imperative (Center for American Progress, July 17, 2007) makes clear.
With world crude oil prices nearing $75 a barrel, economies across Africa are grinding to a halt under the burden of soaring energy costs. The spike in world oil prices this summer will exacerbate economic problems, pounding already fragile national budgets and offsetting hard-fought gains from poverty reduction programs, international development aid, and debt relief efforts.

In Senegal’s capital city of Dakar, the cost of taxis has almost doubled since 2005 and blackouts occurred every day last summer because the state-owned utilities couldn’t afford to pay for fuel. The country relies on oil imports to power its diesel-fired generators, and while conditions relaxed somewhat over the winter, power cuts are on the rise again. As of May, the capital was facing 10-hour power cuts several times a week and the government was warning of impending, unprecedented shortages.

It's almost impossible to discuss what is happening in poor countries without coming right back to vague anecdoctal evidence. Cohen's article mentions a study that will soon be out that may clarify what is going on in poor countries. If it includes data on oil imports for a large number of poor nations, that will be a major improvement. However, getting hard data on how much oil various poor countries are importing can be complicated since there has recently emerged a major black market for stolen fuel across national borders.

Nevertheless, even in wealthier countries there is growing concern. US Energy Secretary Sam Bodman has recently said the high price of oil "threatens US economy." And the International Energy Agency is urging OPEC to increase production:
The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) urged the OPEC oil cartel on to increase production after the price of crude hit a new record.

'Oil prices are very high because they are reacting to the announcement of American stocks, which have fallen a lot more than expected,' Claude Mandil, the head of the energy watchdog told AFP.

'I hope that everyone will draw the consequences,' he said, in reference to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which has resisted previous IEA calls to pump more crude to keep oil prices down.

OPEC, however, paints a very different picture of oil; here's Qatar's official response:
Opec can do nothing about the high price of oil as there is no shortage of crude in the market, Qatar’s deputy premier said yesterday.

“We can’t do anything because this price is not related to a shortage of supply,” HE Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, who is also energy and industries minister, told Reuters by telephone.

“Inventories in industrialised countries are at high levels. That proves there is no shortage of supply at all.”

Other OPEC countries have made similar Orwellian statements (of course, the Bush Administration has pretended for six years that we don't need an energy policy, though the invasion of Iraq may indeed be Bush's lame version of an energy policy).

I want to make it clear that I'm primarily raising questions with this post. I'm quite aware that right wing Republicans have been giving us anecdotes for the last twenty-five years that have little bearing on the world as it really is; anecdotes have their place if they're followed by hardnosed attempts to find out for sure what is happening. In fact, I laughed when I came across this quote by Steve Clemons of The Washington Note:
...House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a recent Maria Leavey breakfast, the plural of anecdote is not data.

If the reader can pardon my perverse whimsy for a moment, I should point out that the antidote to anecdotes is data.

I'll keep my eyes open for hard data and would appreciate a note in comments from any readers that have seen data on how much gain or loss of oil imports poor countries have been experiencing in the last five to ten years. In the meantime, I take seriously the oil crunch. I believe we are now up against a world changing event that requires we start dealing with it now rather than waiting for things to get worse. We knew we had a problem thirty years ago and we did little. By no means have I proved my hypothesis to my satisfaction, but the tragedy of these times may very well be that poor countries are involuntarily buying time for the industrialized world, and particularly the US, to get moving at last on serious energy policies. In any event, we have a moral obligation to make use of the time remaining.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Nonexistent Credibility of Bush & Co.

During Congressional hearings held on the mafia some forty to fifty years ago the most common response by mafia types being questioned was invoking the fifth. Thanks to the 'leadership' emanating from the White House, a line of questioning might lead to a more nonsensical line of defense these days:

Congressman: Did you kill One-armed Sonny on July 31 on order from Mafia boss Corleone?

Hitman (after hesitating, consulting his lawyers, and pausing): I don't recall.

Congressman: Let's take this step by step. You were seen by two witnesses. You still had your gun when you left the building. The five bullets that hit One-armed Sonny came from your gun. You had blood on your jacket. You have agreed to testify in exchange for leniency. So I ask again, just the first part of the question: did you kill One-armed Sonny?

Hitman (same drama as before): I have no memory of causing his death.

Welcome to the era of the hazy memory defense.

Scooter Libby has hazy memory.

Karl Rove has hazy memory.

Alberto Gonzales has hazy memory.

Donald Rumsfeld has hazy memory.

Gonzales and Rumsfeld are also somewhat adept at playing rope-a-dope, which is simply filling their alloted time with nonsense and bullshit as they evades proper and legal questions from Congress. They won't even give a straight answer to the press.

Cheney is now attempting the hazy memory defense.

Dan Froomkin of White House Watch (in a column called "Cheney's Unmistakable Admission") has this post on our ethically-challenged Vice President:
In an interview yesterday, CNN's Larry King asked Vice President Cheney if he dispatched Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card to a Washington hospital room to pressure a sedated John Ashcroft, then attorney general, to approve surveillance techniques that Ashcroft's subordinates had concluded were illegal.

Cheney's response?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't recall -- . . . I don't recall that I gave instructions to that effect.

"Q That would be something you would recall.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I would think so. But certainly I was involved because I was a big advocate of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, and had been responsible and working . . . to get it to the President for approval. By the time this occurred, it had already been approved about 12 times by the Department of Justice. There was nothing new about it.

"Q So you didn't send them to get permission.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't recall that I was the one who sent them to the hospital."

Have you ever heard such a non-denial denial? Seriously: Can anyone reading this see it as anything but an admission that Gonzales and Card (then White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively) were following Cheney's orders?

He doesn't remember sending them to the hospital. Well, what does he remember?

Froomkin has a good summary of the events and issues involved. His post is a reminder that bloggers need to summarize events more often as more facts are uncovered and as more bamboozlement and distractions comes from the Bush Administration and their enablers in the media. The noise machine that seems to be about 90% of the function of the White House these days spends a great deal of time denying events while deliberately compounding and confusing the issues at the same time. Make no mistake. At this late date, we have no reason to trust Bush and Cheney's claims. Congress needs to take a hard look at everything these two are doing and have done. The fact that our Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, is still hanging on to his job tells us that we have a serious problem and that the problem is higher up.

See Dan Froomkin's latest column on Thursday ("Karl Rove's Immunity")

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