THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 808, February 8, 2015
Solved problems are a dire threat to politicians
who subsist on promising to solve problems they
themselves have usually caused.
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
Before we start, let's get one thing straighter than it has been. Coal is not a fossil fuel. There is no such thing as a fossil fuel. The idea that coal (or much of anything else) comes from squashed Carboniferous trees and other prehistoric plants that died hundreds of millions of years ago is romantic: stored ancient solar energy and all, but it is a myth. There was probably never enough Carboniferous plant life to account for the coal we have already mined, refined, and burned.
Unfortunately, some of the world's most gigantic corporations, its wealthiest families, its most powerful political regimes are built on that myth. Academia is no more help with this mess than it has ever been. Politicians continue to whimper about "vanishing resources" and global warming (another myth) because employing coal, energy is essentially a solved problem. And solved problems are a dire threat to politicians who subsist on promising to solve problems they themselves have usually caused. As a result, Western Civilization is about to be deprived of what is probably its most useful and versatile substance, coal.
I'm willing to bet that there are individuals among my readers—probably the younger ones—who have never held a lump of coal in their hand, smelled it, tasted it, burned it. There used to be a model working coal mine in the basement of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. I don't know if it's still there. Natives of Newfoundland, where I grew up, used to keep coal-fired stoves to heat their living rooms. In that near-Arctic environment, they probably associated the distinctive odor of burning coal with being warm enough. For much the same reason, my darling wife loves the smell of our furnace starting up.
Coal is a product of plate tectonic subduction. In plain English, that means that. as sections of the Earth's crust drift around the surface of the planet, in ultra-slow motion, they sometimes overlap. One plate is pushed down closer toward the red-hot center of the Earth, while another slides over it. (This is one of the causes of volcanoes.) It melts, and the water and other things that it contains are converted by heat and pressure into methane. That methane starts to bubble up toward the Earth's surface, which can take thousands of years. On its way, it acquires more and more carbon and gets hydrogen- saturated.
Before too long (geologically speaking) the methane becomes a series of other gases, alkanes such as ethane and natural gas. This, in turn, is converted by its long journey through the crust into the various grades of petroleum, then tar, or asphalt. The final step is coal.
"But wait!", I pretend to hear you say, "Don't they find coal every now and again that has retained its "original" shape in the form of twigs, leaves, and branches?" What they have found is plant remnants, soaked through with the black, tarry substance that becomes coal. If you mop up spilled coffee with a dish towel, that doesn't mean the towel has become coffee, it simply contains coffee. Sometimes the distance between preserved leaves is as great as a dozen feet.
Even as we "speak", new coal is being manufactured by the Earth. You may have noticed that I skipped past a moment when the converted gas exists as petroleum. Petroleum in no more a biological product than coal. It's being created continuously, too. There is no "peak oil" and it will never run out. You will find abundant petroleum anywhere on the planet you care to drill, if you're willing to drill deep enough.
You can even find it among the Asteroids where, I predict, coal will be discovered, as well. Similarly, we will find oil and coal on Mars.
These ideas first came from the mind of an Austrian astrophysicist named Thomas Gold, a colleague of radical astronomer and science fiction writer Sir Fred Hoyle. Having seen the theory confirmed in the field, and corroborated by Russian researchers, Gold first started discussing his theories publicly decades ago. In the 1950s, when the Soviet Union was the world's third largest oil importer, Josef Stalin ordered scientists to improve the situation. Following these ideas, in fifty years, Russia became the world's third largest exporter of petroleum. Gold set his ideas down in a book called The Deep, Hot, Biosphere.
One reason that people think petroleum arises from biotic sources like dinosaurs or plants is that it's almost always found in close association with what have become known as "extremophile" organisms, bacteria like those in the famous deep underwater vents. They eat sulfur. These bugs eat methane, and get pushed up by slowly thickening gases, and pulled up whenever gas or oil is extracted from the Earth. Gold even hypothesizes that life began underground, rather than in the sea.
Petroleum, Gold tells us, is the second most abundant liquid on Earth. Once the Western world adopts his reasoning, as well, it will fundamentally transform the planet. What need for long, overland pipelines and sea-going tankers when oil is found wherever you look? Why fight endless, bloody wars over oil fields and "choke points"? Why pay more than fifty cents a gallon at the pump for gasoline when you can get your oil and tires checked and your windows cleaned by eager attendants?
It's criminally ridiculous to assert that we must end our "addiction" to gasoline or our dependency on coal. Why? Must we strive to end our "addiction" to oxygen or struggle to end our dependency on water?
It's exactly the same financial model that has enriched many a foreign drug lord or government agent, now being forced on us by the War on (Some) Drugs: find a cheap, reasonably abundant substance, like marijuana or cocaine, then artificially drive the price upward by banning it. In this case, cling to 200-year-old notions about finding and obtaining petroleum or coal, and then profit from the historical misunderstanding.
This country once grew unprecedentedly rich and powerful entirely on individual initiative. Once nobody had to ask anybody else for their permission to get rich. To the extent that individual initiative has been discouraged, to the extent that freedom of thought and action are now forbidden, to the extent that private property rights are more and more routinely violated, to the extent that individualist volunteers are required to impoverish themselves defending uniquely American values, to that extent, we have fallen behind lesser societies.
It is deeply embarrassing and overwhelmingly disgusting to realize that, thanks to figures like George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack H. Obama, and their collectivist ilk, drab satrapies like Russia and China have come very close to catching up.
Our future is being stolen from us, and that thievery must be ended with extreme prejudice. Without the present burden of state and federal government taxes and regulations, without a pointless foreign war for each generation to fight, without an infantile faux-President threatening to put the industry out of business, without the vile collaboration of those who pretend to stand for liberty, coal will be cheaper, too. The monsters in both parties who think they own us don't like it that, throughout history, the more energy that was available to ordinary, average people, the freer those people became. Who can say where cheaper, politically unfettered coal will take American Civilization?
To the stars!
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