Humanity’s love-hate affair with petroleum and the automobile took some momentous turns last week.
On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency. It’s not clear whether the West Coast’s dessicated condition has been driven by climate change. But with Washington harvests threatened by low reservoirs and scant snowpack — and after a winter that never really arrived — we’re getting a sense of what a warmer Northwest is going to feel like.
Also on Friday, Google announced plans to expand testing in California of a new version of its experimental self-driving automobile.
A day earlier, Shell Oil’s towering Polar Pioneer drill rig pulled into the Port of Seattle, whence it will head northward to explore for oil off the North Slope of Alaska. It was met in Elliott Bay by a flotilla of anti-drilling “kayaktivists.” (It is considered poor form to point out how many of the demonstrators’ kayaks and paddles are made of petrochemicals.)
The polymers in those little boats illustrate how tough it’s going to be to wean civilization from fossil fuels.
Although President Obama is satisfied that offshore drilling in Alaska is reasonably safe, we remain nervous. Still, he’s right about drilling in general.
“We are going to have to transition off of fossil fuels as a planet in order to prevent climate change,” he said at Camp David on Thursday. “I think it’s important to also recognize that this is going to be a transition process. In the meantime we are going to continue to use fossil fuels, and when it can be done safely, and appropriately, U.S. production of oil and natural gas is important.”
Much as some might wish it, the human race can’t go cold turkey on petroleum. The effects of a too-rapid withdrawal would include massive shocks to the economy, which invariably inflict the greatest misery on the poor. No government will let it come to that.
What will speed the process are technological developments that are bringing heretofore exotic energy and automotive technologies within reach.
The Google car, for example, isn’t just an uncommonly nerdy-looking electric vehicle. The company is out to make it staggeringly intelligent.
Some high-end automobiles already know enough to avoid the center line and brake before they hit the car in front (which is more than many human drivers can manage). Google intends to go much further.
The idea is to endow its car with a self-teaching Big Data navigational system that will memorize road details down to the inch and stay updated in real time. Picture an onboard Street View that knows the grate has come off the storm drain around the corner.
Meanwhile, “traditional” automakers — whose ranks now include Tesla — continue to refine motors, engines, batteries, fuels and fuel cells that will inevitably render the gas-burning car obsolete.
At the current rate of innovation, this is likely to happen fast, even with the recent decline in oil prices. The Wright brothers’ first flights in their kite-like contraption were measured in seconds. A generation later, pilots were flying around the world. Two generations later, they were flying faster than sound.
Smart, green cars are now on the same trajectory. Petroleum-fueled automobiles are headed for mass extinction. Polycarbonate and polyethylene kayaks? That’s another question.