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Saturday
Mar292014

Rumble Strip Vermont 

I’d like to bring your attention to a remarkable website. True, it was created by a friend of mine, but I have always had the option of ignoring it. I visited it just recently and it was so much fun I thought I’d share it with you.

The site is Rumble Strip Vermont and it is run by Erica Heilman. Erica records conversations with people, edits them, and puts them online. Professionally she is a private investigator, although you’d never guess it when you meet her. This is probably one reason why she is a good investigator. She’s a great conversationalist, which is what her kind of investigation is all about.

The result is a lot of seemingly ordinary people talking about their lives; hobbies, professions, tragedies, thrills. It is the amazing contained in the quotidian.

The latest installment is some pieces about a local institution, Thunder Road. Thunder Road is a quarter-mile oval track next to a steep hill with concrete bleachers and a beer-drinking and picnicking area above. All our local heroes come out on Thursday nights to drive dangerously and bask in the best glory – fame among friends. Erica gets the story and gets the story right.

Stop in at Rumble Strip Vermont and enjoy. Keep stopping in – I’ve never been disappointed.

Wednesday
Mar052014

Intervention 

So, a nation that was once a semi-autonomous region of a declining empire has something in between a popular uprising and a coup, bringing in a new government hostile to the nearby large nation with a serious military. Said superpower sends in troops on the pretext of protecting members of its society living in that turbulent nation. World leaders in general react negatively, but there’s not much they can do, as the invading nation has a large military and nuclear weapons, as well as a certain amount of economic leverage.

Of course, by now you have now guessed that I am writing about Grenada.

Grenada? You know, the island nation in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela where they grow lots of nutmeg. The one we invaded.

I’ll refresh your memory. Grenada spent a couple of centuries as a British colony before inching its way to independent Commonwealth Nation status in 1974. In 1979 the New Jewel Movement, a Marxist political party, overthrew the elected government and took power. In 1983, a faction of the NJM that thought that the governing group wasn’t Marxist enough had another coup.

At this point the bone of contention with the U.S. was a long runway being built by American, European, and (gasp) Cuban contractors. The Grenadians and Europeans (along with a U.S. congressional investigation) said it was for commercial jets full of tourists. The Reagan administration said it was for military cargo jets full of arms for leftist Central American revolutionaries.

Then there were the medical students. There were a number of U.S. citizens studying at a medical school on the island. When interviewed just before our invasion they said that all was calm and that they were studying for midterms. Reagan decided that they needed rescuing. More accurately, that rescuing them was an excuse that would play well with the slack jawed masses at home.

On October 25th, 1983 we sent in a military force that also included some troops from nearby island nations. It was pretty much a rollover.

Sidebar: As the invasion commenced, Reagan got a call from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, telling him that an invasion would be a violation of international law and an unforgivable attack on the sovereignty of a Commonwealth nation. Consider: When the woman who sent her military to the Falklands, the woman who works in a government that includes Her Majesty the Queen, tells you that you are being too imperialist, listen. Reagan lied to her, as was his habit. Maggie found out about the invasion from other sources. So much for the special relationship.

The United Nations denounced the invasion as "a flagrant violation of international law" in a lopsided vote, with some U.S. aid dependent nations abstaining. Reagan made an offhand comment about the vote not upsetting his breakfast.

We installed a friendly government, which prosecuted the former government and handed out 14 death sentences, and all has been quiet since then. Oddly enough, the Grenadians named their new airport after the Marxist leader who had been killed in the coup of the more Marxist Marxists.

Which, of course, brings me to the Ukraine, Russia, and all that. Putin is a few hairs shy of a dictator, but a popular elected one in a country with a long history of one man rule and a combination of paranoia and resentment towards the west. Ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich was no gift to clean politics either. The opposition that ousted him was violent and is still riddled with fascist elements. There are indications that the U.S. was and is backing the opposition movement. And so on. The situation is short on black and white.

Putin has scored big points at home and has both Europe and Ukraine by the (short hairs) natural gas pipeline, so he’s feeling good about life. He will learn what all invaders learn; the lesson of the dog that actually catches up with the garbage truck he’s been chasing. Once he has the bumper of a huge truckload of stinking political garbage in his jaws, what does he do with it? The markets have spoken, with a drop in the Russian stock market obliterating something like 10% of its value. (Also a rise in interest rates.) The madness of dealing with a factionalized and passionate group of citizens will become apparent soon enough.

For sure, invading other countries is a bad thing. However, John Kerry and others can SMETFO (spare me the false outrage). Kerry’s statement that Russia shouldn’t just invade another country on trumped up pretenses made him the ultimate straight man waiting for the punchline. I’m not just talking about Iraq, or even Iraq and Grenada. The U.S. and Russia/USSR, along with all of the other great powers in their times of power, have spent their time destabilizing smaller countries, fomenting coups, and outright invading. It’s not right, but let’s not look at the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as some kind of sui generis event. And again, with emphasis, spare me the false outrage.

Sunday
Feb162014

A Case of Mistaken Identity 

I drove a friend of mine to the dental surgeon last week. He had to undergo one of those episodes of high-tech carnage that rebuild the jaw. It involved bone paste – I’ll leave it at that, and you’ll thank me. It required heavy sedation, of course, so I was to pour him back into the car and get him home afterwards.

I left him with a 20-something female nurse, ran an errand, came back, waited an hour, and then the nurse brought me into the operating room. My friend was still in the chair, a touch of blood on his lips, utterly stoned out of his kug. Whatever they had given him had done the job. He was hobnobbing with the Mars Rover, or maybe Voyager 1, out in the heliosheath. But I digress.

The nurse started to explain to me the sequence of aftereffects of the surgery and asked me to wait for the surgeon. He came in, dressed in his scrubs. We introduced ourselves and he said, “Let me show you what I did.” He ignored my queasy protest that it wasn’t necessary and brought up an x-ray of my friend’s jaw on a huge screen. I learned some things about modern dental surgery, luckily without any detailed graphics, and then he launched into the necessary details of my friend’s care and feeding for the next week or so. Ice packs, Ibuprofen, swelling, Vicodin, lukewarm mush, the works. I nodded, wondering why I needed to know all this.

I filled my pockets with gauze and ice packs and the nurse and I raised my friend onto his wobbly legs and guided him through the hallways towards the front door. We stopped to let him use the rest room. The nurse and I waited. After a pause she said, “So, are you two…….related?” Two things occurred to me.

One was the realization that she and the doctor thought that we were a gay couple. Ok, a guy in his sixties with no wife or children on his “In case of emergency” form gets brought in by a guy in his fifties. A slightly younger man who was quite gentle and solicitous about helping his temporarily dizzied friend down the hall.

The second, more important thing was that they did not care. In the internet meme parlance, “And not a single shit was given that day.” All they cared about was that my friend used his ice packs and stayed away from crunchy foods. Our relationship, whatever they thought it to be, was irrelevant beyond irrelevant. The nurse was asking out of basic human curiosity, no more.

I explained that we were old friends, and that he lived down the road from me. Maybe I explained a little too much. Not that it mattered. I could have fabricated a story about getting married and she would have sincerely congratulated me.

Later, when my friend had returned from geosynchronous orbit, I told him about it and he laughed. “Yeah, I get that sometimes.”

It’s just a mildly amusing anecdote, but it is also a data point. Here in Vermont, at least in this professional office, we seem to have passed some threshold of acceptance. Beyond acceptance, indifference. I thought it was a big deal when the Vermont legislature passed the same-sex marriage bill and a friend of mine called another friend of mine (the woman she loved) from the House chamber and proposed. Well, it was.

However, in a way it seems as if this non-incident, this kind of unheralded non-event is even a bigger deal. We’re not at the gates of utopia yet, but I am sure that other non-events like this are happening all over the state, every day. Every such act of recognition and friendly indifference is the swing of a mallet, driving bigotry another sixteenth of an inch into the ground. Perhaps we are actually moving towards a time when gender orientation will become so much background noise.

Wednesday
Jan292014

SOTU 2014

Might as well join the herd and weigh in. I told myself that I wouldn’t watch the State of the Union Address, but with the same kind of twisted motivation that makes people poke at a sore spot, I did.

I only caught the last 20 minutes or so. I read the text and then watched it partly with the sound on and partly with the sound off.

With the sound off, it was interesting to watch President Obama in top form – smooth, with familiar conversational gestures and expressions. It was also interesting to see him framed between the faces of VP Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner. Biden was the faithful Ed McMahon to Obama’s Johnny Carson. He was attentive and both mirrored and reacted to his boss as reinforcement. Boehner sat there with a restrained look of disbelief, a sort of perpetual “Jesus H. Christ, what is this shit?” He was restrained, nevertheless, with no eye rolling and appropriate applause when Obama trotted out the usual patriotic references.

Easy to miss: At one point Biden palmed a mint or candy into his mouth with nearly the deftness of a sleight of hand artist. Nearly. Points for on-camera audacity.

Visual and political differences aside, always remember: The man on the left was selected by millionaires. The man in the middle was selected by millionaires. The man on the right was selected by millionaires.

The President tucked it to the Republicans a few times, which was amusing. He mentioned the 40 votes against the Affordable Care Act in the House. That was a three-fer, nailing the GOP for obstructionism, wasting time, and impotence. He also pegged them on the minimum wage with a classic “When did you stop beating your wife?” line.

“In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”

Oh, the troops, riiiight. Let’s face it, in our present climate of military-worship you could tag the word “troops” onto the concept of eating dogshit on toast and people would at least consider it. Attached to “Let’s give America a raise!” it’s a winner. POTUS wins a prize for irrefutable emotional rhetoric. And, surprisingly enough, a good idea.

He gave a special hoist-with-your-own-petard shout out to ultra-conservative Senator Marco Rubio (R, FL) on the Earned Income Tax Credit, agreeing with Rubio that it should be expanded to give more assistance to single workers with no children. The camera switched to Rubio, who maintained what must have been the most difficult poker face in recent political history. Getting caught by surprise bipartisanship will hurt him with the knee-jerk base.

Much of the rest of the speech struck me as the usual blah-blah. He promoted his policies with the standard assortment of inspiring individual stories.

My heart did go out to Sergeant Cory Remsburg, who was nearly killed by an IED in Afghanistan. He is undergoing the slow and painful process of rehabilitation. At the SOTU he was also undergoing use as a stage prop. There’s a fine line between being celebrated and being exploited, but yes, the White House went over it. Solid bipartisanship here, though. The Republicans have been shamelessly waving “the troops” in our faces since the dark ages. What truly frosts my heretical ass, though, is that Sgt. Remsburg could have stayed home.

My ultimate response to all the hoopla is this, and journalists take note: A press conference (or speech) means being lied to in public. “Access” means being lied to in private. At least with access you get to expense out a meal.

Tuesday
Jan142014

High Prices Coming Down the Pipeline

 “Eventually, the politics of energy has to surrender to the physics of energy.” Randy Udall

Two pieces of news have come together in my mind recently. One is the Vermont Public Service Board approval of a new natural gas pipeline through Addison County. The other is a Wall Street Journal article about investments in shale gas production.

The PSB approval and pipeline story is straightforward. Vermont Gas, a subsidiary of Canadian Gaz Metro, is extending its pipeline from Chittenden County and the population center around Burlington southward through Addison County. Phase 2 of the project will have the pipeline cross the narrows of Lake Champlain and serve the Ticonderoga paper mill in New York. In theory, Phase 3 will bring natural gas to the city of Rutland around 2020.

There are objections to the pipeline by many residents of Addison County, generally on two grounds: First, that this will encourage the use of hydrofractured (“fracked”) gas, which is controversial due to its threat to ground water and the general environment near drilling sites. Second, that it will detour us from the pursuit of renewable energy and energy efficiency. A number of people simply don’t want a natural gas pipeline on or near their land.

The proponents of the pipeline argue that it will bring cheap energy to western Vermont, with the resulting economic benefits. Phase 2, they say, will bring far cleaner, cheaper energy to the Ticonderoga plant, with resulting environmental and economic benefits.

A sidebar on shale gas production:

So-called conventional oil and gas generally reside in underground sandstone formations, like sponges made of rock. The oil and gas are in the holes in the sponge (porosity) and the holes are connected to some extent (permeability) so that the oil and/or gas can flow through the sponge, much the same way that water can soak through from one end of a sponge to the other. These conventional deposits can be miles across and hundreds of feet thick.

Shale oil and shale gas deposits can be described the same way, but with different measurements. A shale deposit might have one one-thousandth the porosity and permeability of a sandstone deposit. A shale formation like the Bakken in the northern Midwest covers thousands of square miles but is only ten to maybe 150 feet thick. To imagine the scale, picture a layer of plastic wrap over a couple of football fields. This distribution means two things. One is that there is a lot less energy per horizontal acre in a shale field. The other is that the oil and gas won’t travel from one part of the field to another without a lot of help.

Horizontal drilling is the process of controlling the drill bit so that after going straight down it curves sideways and follows the thin shale formation. Drillers make a number of these horizontal boreholes out from a central drilling point in order to get access to a large area of shale.

Hydrofracturing is the process of injecting a mixture of water, chemicals, and then sand at extremely high pressures to blast open the cracks and pores in the shale. The sand is a “proppant”, keeping the blasted shale from collapsing back on itself. These two operations are an expensive proposition.

A horizontally drilled, hydrofractured well has a relatively short productive life. After a massive initial rush of production, output could drop by 40-50% in the first year. It might drop another 30-40% in the second year, and 20% or more in the third. The key to maintaining production levels is drilling intensity – quickly drilling more wells to replace declining ones. This is also an expensive proposition.

The Wall Street Journal Article (paywalled), as quoted in the ASPO-USA Peak Oil Review, casts doubt on the cheap energy claim by Vermont Gas. There has been a huge rush into shale gas drilling over the past decade. With that rush came a huge rush of natural gas, driving the price down to the historic lows of the past few years. Those low prices, bottoming out below $2 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf), were below the cost of production. Shale gas exploration companies lost tens of billions annually. As far as I can tell each company’s strategy was to hold on to the mineral leases and produce at a loss until their competitors went out of business. Then the remaining companies could clean up as supply declined and gas prices rose. The industry has been running on continued injections of investor cash.

Recently the investors have been getting cold feet. Here’s the key quotation from the WSJ article:

    “Since 2008, deep-pocketed foreign investors have subsidized the U.S. energy boom, as oil and gas companies spent far more money on leasing and drilling than they made selling crude and natural gas. But the rivers of foreign cash are running dry for U.S. drillers. In 2013, international companies spent $3.4 billion for stakes in U.S. shale-rock formations, less than half of what they invested in 2012 and a tenth of their spending in 2011, according to data from IHS Herold, a research and consulting firm. It is a sign of leaner times for the cash-hungry companies that have revived American energy output. The value of deals involving U.S. energy producers plunged 48% this year from 2012, to $47 billion, the first annual decline since 2008. So U.S. oil and gas producers have started to slash spending.”

                              -- (The Wall Street Journal, Jan 2)

Remember that the key to low prices is continued high production and the key to continued high production is drilling intensity. The key to drilling intensity is investment, and that is going away, dropping by a factor of ten in just two years. Investment will only come back when the price of natural gas rises enough to make shale production profitable. Industry analysts argue endlessly about what the breakeven price of shale gas is for various fields, but my general takeaway is that it could mean a doubling of wholesale prices.

Back in Vermont, the residents and businesses of Chittenden, Addison, and Rutland Counties are being promised a bounty of cheap natural gas. The geology of shale gas dictates the economics, and the economics, via investor flight, indicates that this is a false promise. Just about the time that consumers find themselves hooked up to the pipeline and paying for their new appliances the price will start heading for a profitable range. The politics of energy will surrender to the physics of energy before Rutland ever sees a cubic foot of natural gas.