You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2011.

Temporary Duty is now available from Amazon in Kindle format (with cover by Stoaty Weasel, yay!). As a result, I’m taking down all but the first seven chapters, which can be considered a “teaser”. The downbeat ending can stay; it doesn’t appear in the (self-) published book.

With Many Thanks to Stoaty Weasel

I hope to make it available in other formats soon, and am actively looking for options.

Thanks to everybody who’s helped, from readers to copy editors.


Ilya Somin misses the point:

In a recent widely-cited Washington Post column, conservative commentator Michael Gerson claims that libertarians promote “a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness.” The accusation that libertarians are really advocates of selfishness is a very common one. Googling “libertarianism + selfishness” yields 1.9 million hits, the majority of which are attacks on libertarianism similar to Gerson’s.

So does Gerson, and part of the reason is that at least some libertarians embrace “selfishness” as a self-characterization. Leftoids, and collectivists in general, reduce the definition of “selfish” to “wanting to keep stuff”. It is a fundamental of libertarianism that people who have stuff should be allowed to keep it, and that society should help them do so. If simply wanting to keep stuff is “selfish”, libertarians are defiantly fine with that. It comes from the same impulse that gave us “Yankee Doodle” as an American anthem.

Generous people see the unfortunate and help them from their own resources. Collectivists (in which term I include “compassionate conservatives” as well as left-Liberals, Socialists, et. al.) want somebody else to help, so that they can guard their own stuff with miserly avidity. I’ve lost the link, which came via Norm Geras, but there is at least one prominent British Leftist who advocates frank acknowledgement of that motive. Leftoids and collectivists accuse others of “selfishness” as a way of deflecting the fact that they, themselves, are profoundly and destructively selfish and covetous.

Across most human societies, people who take stuff away from others are considered Bad (“robbers”, “thieves”, etc.). This is an obstacle to collectivists, who want to take stuff away from others (in order to Do Good, or so they loudly proclaim). Fortunately there’s a loophole. It is a Good Thing to punish Bad People, and taking stuff away from them is a suitable punishment.The conclusion is obvious: define the people who have the stuff you want as Bad People. Taking stuff away from Bad People, to punish them for being Bad, is then virtuous — and, as a bonus, you get the stuff. Only a cynic would suggest that getting the stuff was the point in the first place.

Productive people inevitably have more stuff than the non-productive. It follows from the Sutton Rule that those who want stuff must take it from the productive. Since they must define the people who have the stuff they want as Bad People, collectivists must inevitably define the productive as Bad. Nobody wants to be included in the Bad People list, so they avoid being Bad (producers) and try to be Good (consumers). The society sinks into poverty, because nobody wants to be Bad.

This is especially pernicious in an industrial society. An industrial society requires concentrating stuff into big piles (the “means of production”, or capital). The custodians of the big piles clearly have a lot of stuff, which is an irresistible magnet to the collectivist. Having a lot of stuff must therefore be defined as Bad (“rich”), so that the collectivists can help themselves to the stuff. When they do, the big piles go away — but all the stuff in an industrial society comes from production. If there are no big piles there are no means of production, therefore no production, therefore no stuff. The society sinks into poverty, with the collectivists shrieking all the way down that people who don’t give them stuff are Bad. Poverty is increasing! We have to have more stuff to correct that! Take it from the Bad People!

Western societies are more productive than most (all?) others, and a good chunk of the reason for that is one of Christ’s fundamental teachings. Christianity says that it is not virtuous to punish Bad People; that’s God’s job, and He doesn’t need any help. (It may be necessary to make the society work properly, but it isn’t virtuous.) A Christian has no justification for taking stuff away from Bad People to punish them, and that takes away the prime excuse for taking stuff. That teaching, however tenuously accepted, allowed Western society to accumulate big piles of stuff and use it to produce more stuff — wealth. Abandoning the principle allows collectivists to claim virtue because they take stuff from Bad People, which destroys the wealth-producing mechanisms the principle allowed.

Libertarians, who are often (though not universally) atheists, are attempting to define the Christian principle as a secular one. Taking stuff away from people is always a Bad Thing; it may be necessary, but it’s still Bad, and should therefore be avoided when possible. Collectivists resist that attempt, wanting to Do Good with others’ stuff while jealously guarding their own, and demanding that they be recognized as Good for taking stuff away from Bad People. Criticizing libertarians for “selfishness” is accusing them of not coughing up when the leftoids (liberals, “compassionate conservatives”, et. al.) demand their stuff so they can selfishly conserve their own while Doing Good, and be defined as Good People for that. It is deeply and profoundly selfish, and the criticism is intended to deflect that judgement.

The Corps of Engineers is going to open the Morganza Spillway. By the time you read this, they may already have done so. This is a big, big deal.

Left to themselves, rivers flowing through flat country change course all the time. There’s a positive feedback mechanism: If a loop or bend starts, the water has to flow faster to get to the end in the same time, and “centrifugal force”[1] makes it faster on the outside of the loop. That erodes the outside bank and deposits sediment on the inside, and the loop grows bigger and bigger until the same effect at the “neck” of the loop wears through, whereupon the loop becomes an isolated slough and the river flows straight until the next loop starts to form.

Most of the middle part of the United States is relatively flat, largely because the Mississippi and its tributaries have eroded it down over the eons. The natural course of those rivers would be a series of growing and shrinking loops, with annual floods spreading over wide expanses of surrounding land. That’s not convenient for the people living nearby. The loops increase the length, making barge traffic take longer, and an incredible amount of American commerce goes by barge up and down the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the rest of the system. Some of the most valuable farm land in America is found in the flood plains, where the river has deposited sediment in earlier epochs, and if the river changes course that farmland can disappear under water. That isn’t the worst part, because a roughly equal amount of new land would then be exposed — but our land use patterns are based on fixed boundaries, and if the river takes a hundred acres away from one farmer and gives it to another, it causes all kinds of legal problems. Rivers are also commonly State or National boundaries, and that can be a big legal problem. There are already many places where the boundary isn’t the river any more, it’s where the river was at some earlier time.

That’s especially important at a place called Old River. In a delta, which is by definition quite flat, rivers deposit sediment that eventually blocks their path, which results in the water seeking a new outlet. Every river delta has multiple mouths that switch off over time as the sediment builds. The channel that passes through Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been building up sediment for the entire time the country has been settled, and water had begun to flow via the Old River through the Atchafalaya, bypassing the settled areas. That process would naturally result in the Mississippi using a new mouth of its delta, ‘way to the west of the main settlements, and that would be a financial problem verging on disaster, not just for the people of Baton Rouge and New Orleans but for the country as a whole. There are billions, possibly trillions, of dollars in capital infrastructure along the existing path — barge and ship terminals for everything from exported grain to imported LNG, and the support for those — that would be rendered worthless by the change in the river’s course. At best they would all have to be rebuilt. At worst it might mean moving two major cities lock, stock, and liquor stores. Keynesians would rejoice, but that wouldn’t just be a broken window, it’d be tearing down the shop and the city it’s in.

So the Corps of Engineers built the Old River Control Structure, which forces the river to continue on its present path, and the Morganza Spillway, which is designed to relieve pressure on the Old River structure when conditions make it necessary. That has had all kinds of undesirable side effects. The major one, from the point of view of the engineers, is that the buildup of sediment has continued, requiring building higher and higher levees along the river banks. There are lots and lots of places where the river is considerably higher than the surrounding land, and if the levees ever break it’ll be like popping a balloon — it’s hard to tell just where the water would go, but it’s certain that wherever it went it’d be expensive for lots of people. Another is environmental problems. In order to keep the river moving at all, and therefore transporting at least some of the sediment to the Gulf of Mexico instead of blocking traffic, more and more water has to be forced into the main channel, and that starves the rest of the delta of sediment. Looking at a time-lapse map of Louisiana can be eye-opening. Places that used to be dry land are now swamp; places that used to be swamp are now open channels, many of them to the Gulf, because there’s no sediment to keep them built up. Not only is the land area of Louisiana shrinking at a remarkable rate, the simplification of the delta means if the water does start flowing it will move fast instead of slowing and spreading. Levees and spillways and control structures have turned into a Red Queen’s race, with the engineers running as hard as they can to keep the present conditions in place.

Now we have major flooding in the entire Mississippi river system, and face Hobson’s Choice: either let some of that water go where Nature would have put it long ago, or let several major cities along the rivers flood out completely. It’s already been done further upstream, to the vocal displeasure of local land and business owners and Governments, but if the Corps of Engineers loses the race and the Mississippi goes to Morgantown the diversions in Illinois and northern Missouri will look like kids playing mud-pie.

Letting Baton Rouge and New Orleans turn into backwater (literally!) villages would be a big economic hit, but that would play out over some time. The immediate problem would be the oil industry. A vast amount of oil passes through South Louisiana because the network of delta channels allow easier access for tankers than is available in Houston, Orange/Port Arthur, or Mobile. There are refineries, storage tanks, pipeline facilities, tanker offloading ports, and a thousand thousand other bits scattered over the whole area that might get flooded, and parts of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be affected. Even shutting them down or curtailing operations to cope with the unexpected water will form a bottleneck that will make it harder to get fuel to the people who need it, and raise the prices. If they get destroyed the impact will be huge.

Greens will approve, because the new path would restore sediment deposition to an area that’s been starved of it for years with huge impact on the ecosystem and habitat. I probably ought to cheer, because that would be very good for Texas, which is the only place even partly prepared to take up the slack. Overall, though, it would be a bad thing for everybody in the country, as the oil business, already suffering from natural, technical, and Governmental disasters, reels from the impact. Keep your eye on the news. Morganza is intended to relieve pressure on Old River, and the impact of opening Morganza is going to be big. If they ever talk about opening Old River, be prepared for the job of essentially rebuilding everything economically important in a triangle whose corners are approximately Lake Charles, Freeport MS, and Memphis. The idiom used in my childhood was “Katie, bar the door”. In this case, though, Katie barred the door long ago, and is now trying to cope with battering rams.

[1] Yes, an oversimplification. It’s useful as a first approximation.

We have yet another breathless story of the Horror of Global Warming: it might cut the range of wifi signals! At least according to British bureaucrats, who suggest (of course) that they be given a few billion pounds to work out the details and perhaps ameliorate the problem.

Rubbish, on several levels. Communications engineers have a lot of problems, but heat isn’t one of the show-stoppers. In electronics in general, the superstars are the ones who can take a half-inch square of stuff thinner than a fingernail, and write on it what would be, if it was characters, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita, with room left for personal notes; but the heroes are the ones who can wrap that scrap in black plastic and feed it enough power to run a floodlight without having it burn to a crisp. Heat is a normal hazard, and there are lots of ways to overcome it, or even make it work for you.

If you want to strike fear into the hearts of communications engineers, show them this:

A Backhoe at Work

Fear! Danger! It's Coming to Get You! (or at least your cable)

Yes, my friends, warmening may reduce the range of your wifi, at least ’til the engineers can pump a little more power into it and improve the processing, but “backhoe fade” can cut whole countries off the Internet. Cable people don’t wake in the night from dreams of zombies. They hear, off in the middle distance, the sound of a big Diesel overlaid with voices: Shit, Leroy, just dig the damn hole. That there pipe’s gotta be down there somewhere. (Or the equivalent in any of the tongues where Diggus Redneckus finds favorable habitat, which nowadays is anywhere on Earth.) AAAAAAAAARGH! There, there, dear, you just had a bad dream. I’ll bring you something to help you sleep. — Better make it a Nembutal, honey.

Ms. Spelman of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) assures us that for a mere £1bn. or so, she and her dedicated fellows can find ways to ameliorate the problem. There have been a spate of these announcements over the past few years, all of them reporting in suitably horrified tones that some newly-discovered effect of TMPB[1] will kill us all unless we give them (the people making the report) lots and lots of money and the power to order people around.They seem to believe it will have the desired (by them) effect.

Sorry, Caroline. The difficulty is this: Even if we took your solemn pronouncements at face value, you are among the last people we would trust to solve the problem. There are others less qualified — the denizens of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro come to mind — but you aren’t even on the first page of the Google search. Or the hundredth, for that matter. You belong firmly with the Millenialists, crouched around a cross on a windy hilltop waiting for the End of the World, and only their hypnotized Believers take those nutcases seriously enough to put them in charge.

[1]Too Many People Breathing, a.k.a. “carbon dioxide”

The correct answer is: “Why should we care?”

International law, as it stands, attempts to protect the privileges and immunities of people who should not be either privileged or immune. It is, on the whole, an attempt to codify the situation as it existed prior to the Thirty Years War: “Ach, Gottfried, it’s just so damn boring around here. Let’s go start a war. Killing off peasants will liven the place up a bit.” Autocrats, dictators, and tyrants of all stripes, Governmental or private, can send their unconsidered minions off to do a bit of violence, and attackers and defenders alike end up killing off a bunch of gormless plebes, while the originators of the problem are protected from “assassination” or “targeting of leadership” according to International Law.

It ought to be the other way ’round, and as long as the notion of Constitutional amendments is floating around, I would support one obliging the Commander in Chief to do his utmost to discover the originators, planners, and inspirers of any attack on the United States and take them out first, rather than sending our goons to tangle with their goons in pointless, bloody violence.

The United States, and Western democracies in general, are well-nigh immune to reciprocal attacks. Oh, Presidents and Prime Ministers can get killed, no doubt about it — but in Western forms of Government officeholders are, to a close approximation, replaceable at will. When John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas we had a new President before nightfall, and although some of the policies of the American Government changed with the New Guy at the helm, the continuity of “the regime” was never in question in any way. Killing the President would piss everybody in the United States off, but at the end of that day there would be a President and a U. S. Government still doing business at the same stand. The same is true of the UK, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, and all the other countries of the Western world.

The same is most emphatically NOT true of our opponents. The ultimate authors of our current misfortunes can be found in two buildings, both locatable on Google Earth, with honorable mention to two others nearby the first. Taking any or all of them out would relieve the pressure on us enormously; “targeted killing” of the specific individuals presiding over those places would do as well or better, because the regimes involved revolve around those people, and (unlike with us) if reconstituted with new Supreme Leaders would end up working very differently. The same is true of Bashir al-Assad, Muammar al-Khadafi, Robert Mugabe, Little Kim, and a host of others whose regimes are deserving of the name because the kingpin is genuinely irreplaceable without major upheavals. Tyrants and dictators simply cannot have a “bench” of people prepared to leap into action if the star player sprains a frontal lobe, because if they did it would also constitute a pool of people both anxious and capable of hurrying the replacement process. Asssassinating one of them will inevitably cause major changes, where killing off a Western leader will get you disinvited to most social occasions but won’t change anything material, certainly not in the short term.

In most cases, we don’t have any severe beef with spear-carriers, grunts impressed (either sense) to do us hurt, or the ordinary householders and shopkeepers, and even when we do have a beef with them they’re unlikely to have the capability to do much, but they’re the ones who inevitably get wasted by “kinetic military action” while the planners and authors hide behind smarmy declarations of immunity under International Law. Bullshit. If a “regime” or other organization declares its intent to damage the United States or any other Western country, the management of that regime ought to be subject to change with prejudice and without notice.

If you want to end the War on Terror, take out Imam Khameini and the Council of Mullahs — a couple of 500-lb JADAMs would be plenty, with a little on-the-ground intelligence. It is very likely that Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz (minister of defence) and Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz (minister of Interior and, since 2009, second deputy prime minister) of Saudi Arabia would get the hint, but if they did not, we know where they are; it is certain that the Government of Iran would look quite different afterward. Better? Worse? For us, or for them? Who knows? More importantly, who gives a damn? We’ve tried all the “logical” avenues and all the “diplomatic” ones, to little or no avail. Time to shake the Magic 8-Ball and get a different card in the window. International Law be damned. Let’s stop wasting grunts (theirs or ours) and start targeting kingpins. It might even encourage others.

Decertification of public sector unions continues apace, even in such strongholds as California. The most visible case is Wisconsin, of course.

Throughout the sinistrosphere there is lamentation which occasionally spills over into comment in rightist blogs: “Unions gave us decent working conditions and good pay! This will take us back to child labor and sweatshops!” Well, probably not. What the whole contretemps illustrates is that unions were the wrong solution to a real problem.

To review: Industrialization required capital equipment, which was expensive. It was, in general, financed by people who were already rich and wanted to get richer. The capitalists had power, especially over workers, and as usual with people who have power they misused it. Unions were proposed and implemented as a countervailing power center — the workers’ organization would have power which could counteract that of employers, resulting in better conditions for the workers. It all sounds very plausible, doesn’t it?

That paradigm resulted in unionization across the industrialized world, and did provide at least some gains for workers — though, as is pointed out now and again, a lot of the gains attributed to unions can be explained just as well as the interests of employers. The problem is that it ignores the very abuse it was intended to counteract. Rule #3: Power attracts power-seekers. Union leaders acquired power and promptly began abusing it, while generating just enough benefit for the members to keep themselves in power. In general, setting up a power bloc to oppose another one is a bad idea because of this effect. It produces a sort of stasis between mirror-image powers that looks like “peace” but results in the people it’s supposed to benefit scurrying below the lightning bolts being exchanged by the belligerents.

What works better is infiltration and subversion, and that works really well when one of the power blocs provides explicit methods to accommodate it. It was very early realized that there weren’t nearly enough people who were rich enough to finance the Industrial Revolution out of existing resources; some other way of accumulating capital was necessary. As de Soto (the recent economist, not the old explorer) established, the real reservoir of wealth in any society is the widely-distributed small chunks of private capital: houses, cars, personal possessions of all sorts. In order to tap that source to finance the new factories, capitalists retreaded the notion of the “corporation”. A corporation sells shares, uses the money to build capital facilities (“the means of production”), and distributes the profits to its owners, the ones who bought shares. It is, at root, what Marx was demanding — the workers have to own the means of production, because only they can afford them!

Suppose that, instead of being set up as mirror-image power blocs, the United (X) Workers had been organized as investment alliances, sort of like what we call today “mutual funds”. Dues would be used to buy shares in the company, dividends and share-value growth would be used to finance workers’ benefits, and soon or late the union’s investments would result in an active voice in company policy. There were, at the time, templates for just that — the “fraternal organizations”, the Moose Lodge and Odd Fellows and many others, existed primarily for just that purpose. By now, after a century or better of continuous investment, the unions, representing the workers, would either own or control most large companies. Marx’s vision would be realized: the workers would own the means of production.

What we’ve had, instead, was union leaders cementing their power by weakening the corporate structure. Over most of the Western world, we really haven’t added to our capital stock since WWII. Factories and the like have been financed by borrowing, because the tax structure established to keep union leaders in power well-nigh forbids capital formation on the ground that “capital” means “wealth”, which has to be taken away to Benefit the Poor. That policy is coming back to bite us in the butt at the moment.

Repeating that mistake with public sector unions has, and can have, only horrific results for everyone except union leaders. As above, the whole point of a union is as a power bloc to oppose the power of employers — but in the public sector, the “employers” are the Government entities and the taxpayers who support them. A public sector union is an attempt to remove control of Government from “we the People” and transfer it to union leaders who are theoretically accountable only to their own union’s members, and in practice can manipulate the system so as to be accountable to no one. That is becoming apparent to the most dedicated Leftist, and the less-dedicated are starting to take steps to correct the problem.

It is perhaps too much to ask that the process also include another look at private-sector unions, with a view to redirecting their efforts into avenues that would benefit the society we live in, but a fellow can dream.

Seals whacked Osama bin Laden, and America celebrates.

Ding dong the witch is dead. Hip hip hurrah!

<fx: Ric holds up miniature American flag on a stick, and waves it, once, before the camera>

This is not in any way to take anything away from the guys who pulled it off, including the cubicle dwellers back at Langley and elsewhere who patiently put all the pieces together. It’s an amazing achievement, and they ought to drink free for the rest of their lives — not that the analysts will get to do that, or even be able to tell people they had anything to do with it. Remembering events almost exactly twenty-one years ago, the mechanics who made the helicopters work instead of going down with mechanical failures far from the objective also need to get some credit.

Nor is it an excess of sour grapes. If President Obama signed off on the operation — and he had to — he deserves kudos for doing something right. Had it gone wrong, it would’ve been another Operation Eagle Claw, and the President would be carrying the can for it.

But this is not a Superman comic or a Dick Tracy strip. Taking out the Villainous Kingpin will not cause the rest of Teh Organization to fall apart into a gaggle of ignorant, uncooperative goons to be rounded up by Our Boys in Blue. Osama bin Laden hasn’t been anywhere near the center of operations since Tora Bora, if not a year before that. Al Qaeda will go on as before, perhaps with a martyr to inspire them, perhaps not. As Stacy says, “…anyone who thinks this means the whole struggle is over is self-identifying as a rube.”

It is, perhaps, somewhat useful symbolically. But I have to disagree with Kate, and agree at least partially with Bene Diction. Islamists danced in the streets after 9/11/01; Americans are dancing in the streets at the death of the Bad Guy, out of the same emotions precisely. What it needs is an old-fashioned word: it’s unseemly. From time to time we have to kill bad guys, and doing so is a success to be lauded and celebrated, but such celebrations ought to be kept low-key. Necessary evils remain evil.

Symbolic gestures can be useful. If this inspires another Islamist leader to echo Qaddafi — “I am afraid of the Americans” — it might be a good thing. If it inspires the Pakistani Government to wonder if playing both ends against the middle can be dangerous, especially if Americans are holding one of the ends, well and good. But its primary effect will be, as intended, on US politics. For the next year and a half, if you bitch about $5 gas or try to suggest that appointing the BPP to monitor election fairness is a bad idea, the response will be “But Obama got bin Laden, and Bush couldn’t do that.”

So the f* what?

The Sun will rise tomorrow, in a generally Easterly direction.

I am a racist.

Now: are you going to head up the Dulles access road on your way to the District tomorrow morning with the Sun at your back, because a racist said it’d be in your eyes?

No, because there’s no connection between the two pronouncements. Sunrise is a matter of physics, and physics is the same whether the person talking about it is racist or not. The two things have nothing to do with one another.

News flash for all you leftoids, buttheads, and general assholes: It is perfectly possible to have opinions, even derogatory ones, about the policies, performance, personality, and personal and/or oral hygiene of Barack Obama whether or not the person emitting the opinion likes, hates, or cares one way or another what his melanin content might be. This was the whole point behind the ministry of Martin Luther King: the two have nothing to do with one another. If the point under discussion is character, skin color is irrelevant. If I don’t like it that he’s black, too — and I haven’t said any such thing — the comment on policy, etc., still stands.

So when I express an objection and you holler “raaaaacist!” at me, my response is going to be, “Yah. So the f* what? Answer the objection, asshole.” If you don’t have an answer to the objection, you’ve got nothing and need to shut the f* up.

And if you’re the one offering an objection and all you get for your trouble is “raaaaacist!” that’s the correct approach, although if you’re in a situation where politeness is a positive it might be better to say “what’s that got to do with it?” or a nice, long-drawn-out “Aaaaaand…?” rather than “So the F* what?”, which is maybe a little crude. Some variant of that is still the right response, though, especially since the “racer” almost certainly has no answer to the substantive objection — or even, in most cases, any useful degree of comprehension of it.

Liquefied Natural Gas is natural gas, the same stuff that’s piped to your house for heating and cooking, except that it’s been chilled down to -260°F (-160°C) so that it’s a liquid at normal atmospheric pressure.

Natural gas, in general, is a near-ideal fuel. We will never have the “hydrogen economy” because the molecule of hydrogen, which contains two atoms, is so small that it is almost impossible to store. Hydrogen is smaller than the spaces between molecules (or crystals) of anything you might make a tank out of, so keeping it is like storing marbles in a net-bag — inevitably some seeps out. If the tank is metal, on the way out the hydrogen bonds to the metal atoms to form hydrides, which are soft and brittle, not at all what you’d want to make a fuel tank out of[1]. Natural gas is mostly methane, which is one carbon atom and four hydrogens. Most of the energy from burning natural gas comes from the hydrogen. The carbon atom serves as a ball and chain to keep the hydrogen safely confined.

The disadvantages of natural gas as a fuel primarily come down to density. At normal temperature and pressure it’s a gas, slightly heavier than air (no: methane is lighter than air. Thanks, Cajun), with an energy content so close to 1,000 BTU per cubic foot that the units are interchangeable until you get to fine details. Gasoline, by contrast, has over 800,000 BTU per cubic foot, which is why it is, so far, preferred as a vehicle fuel. Replacing a 16-gallon tank of gasoline with the same energy content of natural gas would require over 13,000 gallons of volume, not particularly practical — a big tanker truck might carry 5,500 to 9,000 gallons, and towing two of them with your car would be clumsy and inefficient. There are two ways of overcoming this problem: Compression and liquification.

Compression is simpler. Natural gas at 200 bar has 200 times the energy density, so storing it in a vehicle becomes less problematic. You still need four times the volume to replace gasoline entirely, which isn’t practical in a small car but may be doable in a van or a truck. A bigger problem is the pressure. 200 bar is 29 thousand pounds per square inch, or roughly a thousand times the pressure in your tires. The tanks have to be strong, which makes them heavy. Again, that’s a problem in a small car but may not be in a truck. It might also be a problem in accidents, but a tank strong enough to hold 200 bar is also strong enough that it won’t be easily punctured. CNG is becoming available, and there are vehicles manufactured to use it, but it seems to me to be only a step — a step in the right direction, but only a step nevertheless.

[Correction from Fred Abernathy of Harvard: 200 bar is 2,900 PSI, or a hundred times normal tire pressure. Thanks, Fred. Mumble grumble. I used to be fairly good at arithmetic]

The more modern choice is liquification. This has two advantages. It results in even higher energy density — liquified natural gas has over 600,000 BTU per cubic foot, only a 1/3 penalty vis-a-vis gasoline. It also gets rid of the other stuff in it. “Natural” natural gas, straight from the ground, has all sorts of other compounds mixed in with it, and during the liquifying process they get separated out, so what’s left is almost pure methane. That’s important from a pollution point of view, since the other “stuff” has more carbon in it than methane, so it produces more CO2[2].

A tank for LNG needs to be strong, but not as strong as one for CNG. It also has to be insulated, and as a vehicle fuel this comes out to possibly the biggest disadvantage of LNG: if it isn’t used right away it warms up and escapes. One of the target markets for LNG is over-the-road trucks, which fill up and go, so the fuel doesn’t stay in the tank long. I don’t drive much, so a tank of gas lasts me over a week, sometimes two. If my car ran on LNG it would need a chiller to keep the fuel cold when I’m not driving, which would have to be run off the electricity in the house or use up some of the fuel to keep it going. For a city dweller with natural gas piped to the house, that would be an advantage — the same gadget could liquify the piped-in gas and store it, much more efficiently than battery charging. As a side benefit, in an LNG-fueled vehicle an air conditioner would be an existential definition of “redundant”. If you have a store of liquid at -260°F, compressing and expanding Freon® to get cool would be totally unnecessary.

One huge advantage of natural gas as a fuel is its octane rating. That’s a complicated subject, made even more complex by past advertising campaigns that label high-octane fuel as “premium”. An engine with high compression is more efficient, and for high compression you need a high octane rating. Natural gasoline has a low octane rating, so it needs additives to make it usable in an efficient engine[3]. When high-compression engines first started being produced that problem was quickly noted, and fuel to be used in the newer, better, more expensive engines was made available; the primary additive was tetraethyl lead, produced by the Ethyl Corporation and advertised to the skies as Newer Better Fancier — “premium”. High-octane gasoline actually has less energy than the cheap stuff! Nowadays, of course, pollution fighters have serious hots for lead in any form, and the additives that replaced it, mostly various forms of alcohol, are either more expensive, reduce the energy content even more, or both, and in any case don’t increase the octane rating as much as lead did. Natural gas has an equivalent octane rating of about 130, higher than any form of gasoline including “purple racing gas”, and as a bonus its burning process doesn’t form as much oxides of nitrogen as other fuels, so efficient engines are practical. They don’t even need catalytic reactors[4].

Another advantage of natural gas is that it’s here. The United States imports some natural gas (in LNG form, because that’s the most efficient way of transporting it) but it doesn’t need to, except where it’s more economic to buy it from an easily-exploited reservoir than to drill for it, or where population density plus safety concerns make pipelines less attractive[5]. There’s natural gas almost everywhere down deep[6], and we keep finding reservoirs of it where it’s seeped upwards and been trapped in rock that’s less porous. There are also clathrates, blobs of natural gas mixed with other things found in the deep, high-pressure, cold oceans — it’s difficult and dangerous to retrieve them, but if we run short the technology could be developed, and clathrates are abundant, possibly even containing more methane than rock does. There is lots of natural gas, and exploiting it would reduce both pollution and dependence on exports.

So why aren’t we using natural gas more?

Well, we’re starting to — now that it’s become apparent that it’s abundant, and therefore cheap and likely to remain so, new fixed installations tend to go that way. Among other things, it’s the ideal fuel for “peaking” and “backing” plants designed to generate the electricity supposedly produced by windmills and solar panels. As a vehicle fuel it’s a bit more problematic because of the storage problem, which boils down to infrastructure and thence to history. Gasoline was originally an unwanted byproduct of drilling for oil; the original market was for lubricants, to replace whale-killing and other animal fats, and for kerosene for oil lamps. The early invention of the Kettering spark system made gasoline-fueled, spark-ignition engines easier to build than Diesels, and the gasoline was there in quantity, despiséd by most and available for use. It’s relatively easy to handle and has high energy density, so the familiar setup of storage tanks and gas stations grew as the use of automobiles did.

The technology of the early Twentieth Century wasn’t up to achieving and maintaining the low temperatures and high pressures necessary for liquifying natural gas and storing the result, which is another reason they based the system on gasoline instead. Now, though, we have relatively efficient and inexpensive ways of doing that, many of them derived directly or indirectly from the space program — liquid nitrogen, at a temperature of -320°F, is considerably colder than LNG, and nowadays costs about as much as beer or gasoline. It’s time to look more closely at LNG as a vehicle fuel. The fact that the EPA isn’t clamoring for its use and offering subsidies to build up the infrastructure for it is conclusive evidence that they don’t know what they’re doing and/or have some agenda other than pollution and efficiency.

[1] This is one of the factors limiting the life of a nuclear fission reactor. Hydrogen is just a proton with an electron for company. A nuclear reactor produces free protons as a byproduct of its operation, and the protons latch on to electrons to form hydrogen — which promptly begins seeping through the piping and the reactor vessel, which are usually steel. The resulting hydrides make the steel brittle and likely to crack, so if it goes on very long the vessel and piping start breaking and it’s time to shut the thing down because it isn’t safe any more.

[2] The debate over whether carbon dioxide qualifies as a “pollutant” is not addressed here. The Law says it is, and that’s what we have to work with. There are also components of natural gas that don’t burn as efficiently, producing unburned hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides, which really are pollutants.

[3] It’s also possible to change the mix of petroleum products in gasoline to make a fuel with higher octane rating. This is being done in a small way — in most parts of the US it’s possible to buy “pure gasoline”, with no -ols in it — but it requires changing the refining process and produces less fuel per barrel of oil input, so it’s more expensive.

[4] The thing under the floorboards beneath your feet is a strong vessel in which a chemical reaction occurs, promoted by a catalyst. It is therefore a catalytic reactor, by definition. The term “catalytic converter” is a mealymouthed euphemism designed to keep Greenies and other ignoramuses from riffing on “well dayum, reactors is noocular, git that thang away from me!” Confuse the bastards. Use the right terminology — it’s even Yuropeen (and therefore sophisticated) to do that.

[5] Which is silly. LNG is delivered to places like Boston because of the perception that pipelines are dangerous, which isn’t a foolish concern — if they break it’s a problem (to put it mildly) — but a tanker full of liquified natural gas contains a lot of energy in a small space, and if one should ever catch fire and explode in a harbor next to a city full of people, it’s going to make the Texas City disaster look like a squib.

[6] This seems to me strong support for “abiogenic petroleum”, a.k.a. “the Gold hypothesis” after Horace Gold, the scientist who proposed it. To a very close approximation the Universe is made of hydrogen, and carbon is one of the main byproducts of the fusion process that makes stars hot and bright. Methane, natural gas, is the simplest combination of the two, and is even found in interstellar clouds. The Gold hypothesis is that when the Earth formed from a cloud of particles around the Sun, hydrogen and carbon were incorporated into it and formed methane; oil then occurs because heat and pressure forced methane molecules to combine into heavier fractions. This theory is pooh-poohed because we find microbes in oil, and it’s assumed that the microbes ate the carbon and produced petroleum; to me it seems equally reasonable to assume that the microbes found the oil and went “o yum, food!” (thus adding to the effects of heat and pressure to form heavier molecules). If the Gold hypothesis is true there is methane, and therefore oil, literally everywhere; there is no possibility of running out, because we’ll run out of oxygen to burn it with first.

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When I Posted

May 2011