It's now been discovered that what was once thought to be an oil bonanza in Central Asia?with more oil than exists in the Middle East?is actually a bust. And despite government support of hydrogen fuel cells, research indicates that these will not be a viable reality in the near future, meaning we'll continue to depend on Middle Eastern oil. At the same time, there's been a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq and Saudi Arabia?and these things may be connected.
Estimates of oil reserves in the Caspian Sea have gone from 200 billion barrels to around 20 billion barrels. ExxonMobil is closing one of its Caspian offshore projects due to the poor results of exploratory drilling, and ChevronTexaco is withdrawing as well. Also, the Tengiz field in Central Asia is very expensive to pump and deliver to market and the oil has a high sulfur content (as much as 16 percent). Disposal of this waste sulfur will be a major problem.
There has been very little talk lately about the trans-Afghanistan pipeline, probably due to continuing instability in the country. One planned pipeline which is also being rethought is the 1,090-mile long Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which will cost about $2.9 billion and will link an existing pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean Port of Ceyhan, crossing high mountains and territory occupied by the Kurds, who may be aligned with Islamic terrorists. Critics question whether there are enough oil reserves in the Caspian Sea to support the pipeline, so U.S. interest in it may really be an effort to destabilize OPEC.
The U.S. recently published a document promoting hydrogen fuels, but critics feel this is mostly a public relations ploy, because there are serious problems to overcome before we can make the transition to hydrogen fuel cells. Because hydrogen is the simplest element, it will leak from any container, no mater how well insulated, so some of the hydrogen will always evaporate. Hydrogen gas is also very reactive, and when it comes into contact with metal surfaces it decomposes into hydrogen atoms, which are so small they can penetrate metal and make it brittle.
But the biggest problem is the size of the fuel tanks that would be needed. 62,000 gallons of hydrogen gas is necessary to replace the energy capacity of 20 gallons of gasoline. So far, hydrogen-powered cars have run on compressed hydrogen, but a compressed hydrogen fuel tank can develop pressure leaks through accidents or normal wear, which could cause it to explode.
If the hydrogen is liquefied, 4 four times the volume is needed to produce the energy of a gallon of gasoline, so a 60 gallon tank would be needed to replace a 15-gallon gas tank. Liquid hydrogen is also hard to store, because it?s cold enough to freeze air. In test vehicles, accidents have occurred from pressure build-ups in plugged valves. Beyond this, there?s the high cost of liquefying the hydrogen and refrigerating it so that it remains in a liquid state.
Hydrogen does not freely occur in nature in useful quantities, so it must be split from molecules of methane from either fossil fuels or water. The water process creates carbon monoxide as a byproduct, and the steam that?s used is usually made from fossil fuels, so we can?t escape the production of greenhouse gases?we simply transfer this pollution to hydrogen production plants.
The basic problem with hydrogen fuel cells is the second law of thermodynamics, meaning we?ll always have to use more energy creating the hydrogen than we?ll get from using that hydrogen.
But a belief in hydrogen cell technology will help stock prices overcome the bad news about Caspian oil reserves. Also, the idea that we are working on a transition from fossil fuels may destabilize OPEC, making it easier to deal with Arab oil states.
The government stresses the danger of Saddam?s nuclear and biological weapons, but does not acknowledge that part of our reason for invading Iraq is to protect our oil interests, since we?re still going to need plenty of cheap fossil fuel in the near future, and the revelations about the Caspian oil supply mean we?re going to have to continue to depend on Middle Eastern oil.
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