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A unusually revealing NYT opinion piece

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This story is very well written and very well thought out. It is also hopelessly retrospective, it deals with what 'has been' and what 'is'. It pays attention to some long term problems, such as uncapped abandoned wells that need to be plugged, but the conversation beyond that shows zero appreciation for the emerging energy scene: renewables and fusion among them. It also fails to appreciation the scale of substitution that is already happening in petrochemicals and fertilizer.

A vast number of 'tech' jobs would have been 'energy' jobs in earlier generations. A programmer working on a supercomputer software project might be modeling the weather - is this to survive hurricanes or generate wind power? Just about anyone thinking about it would make up a list: wind power, water precipitation for agriculture, severe weather avoidance or accommodation, power demand management, power transmission optimization, etc., etc. Without those models, it is necessary to overbuild power generation infrastructure, inventory crude and refined petroleum in tank farms, and so forth.

As an interesting exercise, look up pictures of the IBM 360 circa 1965. One of the boxes in the room is the power supply: something about 7 feet tall with the footprint of a washing machine. This was a computer that ran about 1 million instructions per second. The Apple M1 chip, used in various Mac laptops, consumes 5 watts, operates at TENS OF TRILLIONS operations per second, and fits in a briefcase (the laptop, not the chip). In terms of the computations per watt, the multiplier is 100,000,000,000x.

Which raises the question, is the US standard of living dependent on oil, on computing, or both? In short, a vast emphasis has been placed on one element of modern society, ignoring at least one other, if not several. Given the civil engineering involved in building Roman aqueducts, there is evidence of addiction to water that prevails to the current day, and refrigeration and climate control, which also has a lot longer history than simply air conditioners. There are structures in Iran that are 2000 years old where ice from the mountains was stored in the deserts, and 'ice houses' date back to the US colonial era.

Wind power has been used to pump water for thousands of years, and solar panels work perfectly well at powering refrigerators and air conditioners. These 'addictions' can be and have been (at various times) satisfied without a drop of petroleum.

Nitrogen has been fixed by microbes for billions of years - we wouldn't have life at all without it. While ammonia synthesis using natural gas has proven to be the path of least resistance, it wasn't the only means of producing ammonia even at the time it was invented. The only value of methane (i.e. petroleum) in ammonia synthesis is the hydrogen content - there are plenty of other sources for hydrogen, none as simple or cheap to use. This problem is being attacked, and solved, on multiple fronts.

Our 'addiction' to oil would have been an 'addiction' to iron, wood, glass, cotton, ivory, and other materials prior to the 20th century. In short, humanity was heavily dependent on wood for building houses, iron for various kinds of hardware, glass for food and beverage storage, and so forth. Some of this material extraction came at extreme environmental cost, particularly ivory. There are plenty of substitutions for petroleum based products - aluminum cans are one example (it's worth pointing out that there is a plastic liner inside most beverage cans, so this substitution isn't total). Polymer science is vast and expanding, and substitutes exist for many petroleum derived materials. The issue has less to do with absolute technical means and more to do with cost.

Humanity has known how to make methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide since the 1890's. Various other technologies for making things like ethanol and formaldehyde from carbon dioxide feedstocks are either understood or are already in use. While drilling for oil involves people piling into a new field to drill and supply all the surrounding services, CO2 is in the air all around us, so we take it out where it's needed. There are companies making synthetic diamonds from CO2 and solar power.

People need to keep all of this in perspective.

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Think about a mechanical drilling rig sufficiently electrified (or an entire high fidelity "digital twin" of it). There are obviously /many situations/ where it is unsafe for humans to be around (high torque, high vibrational states, some areas with larger gas pockets or poisonous gas like H2S, and this is just on land, far harder under water).  Most of it is automatable and even the control algorithms (you can learn a differentiable controller and then "fine tune" this controller dynamically) and sensors involved to automate them are becoming commodity, I think. Industrial robotics is industrial robotics, but often it removes need for people either kinematically doing effort in a blue collar perspective, or decision making in a white collar perspective. But repurposing knowledge/technology from field1 to field2 is very much a (very useful) thing. 

Edited by surrept33

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