Monday, March 31, 2008

Americans need The Kingdom

There's a big difference between buying cars from Germany and buying oil from Saudi Arabia. If Germany decided to stop selling cars to Americans, we could either buy cars from other countries or produce our own. We don't need cars from Germany. If Saudi Arabia decided to stop selling oil to America, we could try to buy oil from other countries or try to produce our own, but I I'm not sure we'd be as successful in replacing Saudi Arabia's oil as we'd be in replacing Germany's cars. We need oil from Saudia Arabia (if not directly, then indirectly through price).

The U.S. doesn't trade with Cuba or North Korea for political reasons, but that's because Americans don't need Cuban cigars or whatever North Korea produces. Some Americans think we shouldn't trade with China because of human rights concerns, but that's about as likely to happen as our refusing Saudi oil because we also need Chinese goods. As soon as oil becomes as necessary as Cuban cigars, we can expect to stop enriching nations that may not share the same interests as we do. We could also expect that a movie like "The Kingdom" wouldn't have been made because we'd be exclusively buying oil from and searching for oil in countries we didn't think were volatile.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Yerevan: City or Desert

One of the most distressing thoughts to me is the potential effect of the current state of environmental degradation on Armenia.

I watched “Yerevan: City or Desert” this week. It explains how the energy crisis of the ‘90s and the current construction boom have led to Armenia’s severe deforestation, and its subsequent environmental and health problems.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and Armenia’s independence in September 1991, the population suffered tremendously. All of life’s necessities were scarce, including energy. With the country’s gas and electricity cut off, the population resorted to cutting down trees. It’s hard to ask a father of four during the freezing Yerevan winter to think about the long-term consequences of cutting down a tree and burning it in order to keep his family warm. One of the results from the 1992-1995 energy crisis was the significant deforestation of Armenia and the destruction of its green spaces. Even today, up to 70% of the wood consumed in Armenia is for heating and cooking purposes.

Armenians have overcome an enormous amount during the span of their centuries old civilization- empires, conquests, genocide, natural disasters. After the economic collapse that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia is finally overcoming this obstacle and enjoying yet another rebirth. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the perceived economic “growth” and “progress” of the country may actually be leading to its demise. Corrupt government official give away permits to build on designated green space with no regard to the current or future state of the country and its population. This construction is even encroaching on once-fertile land (pretty rare in this rocky region) that has no chance of being used by farmers again. Permits are given to builders rather than the farmers who have cultivated the land for years. This short-sightedness and greed on behalf of the government is really saddening, particularly because most of the “regular folks” in Yerevan truly care about the state of their beloved city. One of the ladies interviewed in the short film boasted about a time when tree coverage was so prevalent in Yerevan that you could walk across the entire city and avoid any exposure to the sun. The city’s admired planner, Alexander Tamanian, had also developed a plan where you could walk from one side of the city to the other through only green spaces. Yet, because of past Soviet intervention and the current corrupt government officials, this once beautiful and lush city is facing an ugly reality. Even more, as green space in the ever-growing capital goes down, a larger percentage of the population experiences upper respiratory diseases, allergies, asthma, and certain types of cancer.

The effort to combat this problem is multi-pronged. There needs to be sustainable economic development with consideration given to assigned green spaces, and with actual force behind it. The population also needs sustainable income as to not resort to illegal logging (another problem- one of Armenia’s top exports is wood). And most definitely, the country needs a stable and clean source of energy (what energy it does have is foreign owned, like much of its other industries) so Armenians don’t have to cut down the lungs and beauty of their country.

If you’d like to learn more or are interested in helping, check out the Armenian Tree Project.

Response to ABC "End of Oil"

I recently just watched again an ABC documentary called "End of Oil" that ABC. The documentary wasn't all that surprising, just one of the many "big-oil-is-bad and global warming is occurring" documentaries that are floating around these days. Yet to me, the documentary's main focus could be summed up by two critical points:

1) Global want of convenience
2) The fact that C02 concentration naturally increases and decreases over time, but that fossil fuel consumption is accelerating the rate of present C02 increase dramatically

In the film a journalist named Sonia Shah talked about how we unnecessarily burned fossil fuels for convenience and power, yet to me, power is a type of convenience. Fossil fuel consumption is a result of unnecessary power wants of every society. This want has transformed from somewhat of a convenience to what can be now considered a necessity to successfully function in today's societies. For years the negative side effects of fossil fuel consumption were rarely (besides an occasional oil spill) seen by the vast majority of society. Now with the media portraying how global fossil fuel production has recently peaked and how global warming is a very serious accelerated man mad phenomenon, we now care because we now take notice of the effects. I really liked the part of the film where Sonia Shah talked about the "value pack" of fruits in the grocery store. That value pack was probably shipped in refrigerated cars hundreds of miles away when it could have more easily come from a local supplier. She described the value pack as somewhat have been "bathed" in oil, as it was not only once refrigerated but packaged in plastic.

Convenience is what drives America these days and seems as if it will always in the future. Everywhere you go companies are trying to standardize aspects of everyday life so to make things easier for all of us. As long as America is dependent upon convenience so to will it be on energy consumption, and for now, that means almost entirely fossil fuel consumption.

GIANT vs. There Will Be Blood (TWBB)

I watched both movies recently and along with some similarities and differences other than the oil theme, both portray elements of the human character and contemporary society exceedingly well through stellar acting performances. The subtle similarities that I found are : upward social mobility, tension between an old and new way of life, and eventual overlap of social issues. Differences: racial undercurrents (GIANT) vs. religion (TWBB), and the land - oil struggle (GIANT) vs. Big oil-independent prospector struggle (TWBB).

Speaking to the similarities, oil was an obvious means of upward movement, exemplified by James Dean's and Daniel Day Lewis' characters. In GIANT, the tension in the changing Texas economy with ranching community on the one hand and oil tycoons on the other was also demonstrated. In TWBB, the tension was revealed more in DD Lewis' role, where he continued to sleep on the floor and live like a wildcatter in spite of his riches.

The racial undercurrents in the GIANT highlight the immigrants' struggle that is widely experienced in Texas even today. This is not completely isolated from the population's religious beliefs, which are dwelt upon more in TWBB.

As an aside, I noticed that people still ask the same questions about Texas today as they did half a century ago. I was traveling in New England recently had to explain, at length, how about the size of and peoples' occupations in the Lone Star state.

Another aside, I think that movies are a great way to instill an awareness of energy issues in the minds of the general populace.

Solar Industry Sees Partnerships As The Way to Go

Partnerships, Joint Ventures, and mergers/aquisitions are starting to become the norm in the solar industry.

Last year, Ausra, solar development startup with its own proprietary concentrated solar technology, inked a 177 MW power purchase agreement with PG&E.

First Solar, a large module manufacturer, announced the aquisition of Ted Turner's Turner Renewables, giving the manufacturer development ("integration") capacity.

And just this Thursday, Solar Semiconductor, a module manufacturer, announced a major partnership with IBC SOLAR AG, a solar integrator in Europe (click here for details)

Look for more M&A, JV, and partnership activity as the solar industry looks for ways to reduce cost, gain competitive edge, and deal with supply shortages in the face of skyrocketting demand.

(Note: The only wind turbine manufacturer with development capability in the U.S. is Clipper. It will be interesting to see if Clipper will be able to create a competitive advantage in this way).

The Kingdom

Not really sure what additional meaningful insight i can provide about The Kingdom as countless others have already described its themes and educational value or lack thereof. I would say for the record i felt it was a solid, entertaining movie that did not come across as too preachy. Overall, i feel it was balanced in its depiction of the conflict of cultures and interests in Middle East.

The movie does not attempt to point fingers, pose a solution, or villanize but rather ask a question - What will happen next? Unlike typical Hollywood fashion, i think the movie refrains from suggesting what policy decision towards Saudi Arabia is right or who is right between the Arab and Western worlds. Rather, the movie depicts differences between the cultures and leaves it to the viewer to contemplate what should be done next...

The Kingdom....

As I watched The Kingdom, it didn't completely strike me as a movie based on energy. The beginning, which can be seen in the trailer, is one of the few times when energy is mentioned clearly. Now any slightly informed person could probably infer that energy, mainly oil, is behind much of the fighting. I think the movie did however do a good job of connecting religion to oil and essentially wealth. It was also interesting to see how the movie portrayed the interaction and attitudes of the Americans toward the native Saudis and vice versa. Unfortunately I haven't seen many other movies about energy, so my frame of reference may slightly change my opinion of what an energy movie should be. As someone stated in the title of their blog, energy is definitely not the plot of the movie but more so the back drop.

Energy Ignorance

"The Saint" tells the story of a thief (Simon Templar played by Val Kilmer) who disguises his identity by using the names of various Catholic saints. The plot focuses on one of Templar's missions, which is to steal the formula for cold fusion from the female scientist at Oxford University who developed it. A Russian mafia member who is hungry for political power hires Templar for the mission in order to provide the Russian population, currently freezing to death, with energy for heat. Little does anyone know that the Russian politician is actually hiding oil reserves from his own people!

One thing that struck me as interesting during "The Saint" was the ignorance of the Russian politician about energy. Immediately after receiving the formula for cold fusion from Templar, the politician gives it to a Russian scientist for decoding. As far as I can tell from the movie, the politician has no knowledge about cold fusion and completely relies on scientists to inform him about it.

Due to the advanced nature of subjects today (and especially cold fusion), the ignorance of the politician is understandable. However, I sometimes wonder how ignorant politicians are about the subjects of their decisions. I do not expect politicians to be experts on all topics, but a general knowledge of major issues would be nice.

The Russian population's experience of no heat can represent the energy crisis that some people believe is near or even here for the United States. I hope that American politicians, unlike the Russian politician, make it a point to learn some energy basics before making any drastic decisions about the way we get our power.

Tragedy & Drama in the Oil Industry

After watching There Will be Blood, my roommates kept commenting on how strange and anxious the movie was, but I must admit that I enjoyed the nail biting drama. I think that many of the emotions and characteristics portrayed actually exist in the oil business: anticipation for something great to happen (striking oil), greed for money and power, and the loss of core values and family members. To me, the movie showed that the oil industry is not something to be entered lightheartedly; it demands sacrifice, dedication, persuasiveness, passion, and persistence.

My friends also complained about the anticlimactic ending; they were expecting something great to prevail from all of the father’s efforts. However, I appreciated the realistic and tragic ending with the father taking his life; it showed how the energy industry can demand so much from you and not pan out the way that you had hoped it would. The wealth didn’t end up providing him with security or happiness, but isolationism and paranoia. I also enjoyed the presentation of progress over safety. The crude oil drilling scenes clearly illustrated that safety only followed progress in extraction. Many men died drilling, and, still, many men die in tragic industry accidents today. The movie was clear in its message that ignoring the safety of the workers was immoral, but that at that time, there was a lack of regulation and every man was for himself.

The Scream Extractor


The movie I will be talking has a target audience of little kids. It involves fuzzy monsters and a little girl... Monsters, Inc. So how is the movie related to energy? Even though the movie's main theme was about saving the girl and good friends, there is an underlying theme in regards to energy and the growing demand for it. In fact, the title of the movie is the name of the energy company. In the movie, monsters creep into little children's rooms and scare them. The scream is then converted to electricity that powers this monster world. The company is having energy extraction issues, the kids aren't afraid anymore. As the movie progresses, we find out that the CEO of this company has created a device to strap kids into a chair and extract the scream more efficiently, basically torturing the kids. In the end of the movie, everything is back to normal and they realize that laughter is more potent than screams. So the monsters now sneak in to kid's rooms and try to make them laugh. There are a couple points I want to bring up. One is that there is a theme of energy scarcity and growing demand. The other is the issue of how far are people willing to go to extract more energy? Are they willing to risk the lives of children? Over all the movie does not cast a negative light on energy business as a whole, since both of the main characters are workers for the power plant. The bad guy ends up being the CEO. Its interesting to note that the movie's city has an energy crisis and there are people willing to do anything to feed the demand. I would not say the movie was anti-corporate. I would say that the movie attempts to shed light on finding alternative ways to obtaining energy. Instead of focusing and intensifying the extraction of scream, the main characters end up finding an alternative way of getting energy. Therefore it is all about thinking outside the box. In real life, it is an important issue. Power is becoming a huge issue and instead of simply focusing solely on the conventional forms of energy, there is a growing move to diversifying energy sources as well as clean sustainable sources.

The World is not "Ready for a Trans-Caspian Pipeline" Enough

"The World is Not Enough", starring Pierce Brosnan was action packed, full of excitement and when I first watched it a number of years ago, I never would have thought that I'd be looking back on it know with such interested retrospect for its plot. In case, all of you great Bond fans out there have forgotten, this movie centers its plot on a pipeline which runs from the Caspian, a pipeline that many of the heavy hitting Russian oil tycoons (in real life) are very much trying to forestall. Recalling this got me thinking about the topic and also searching a bit to really crack this nugget of what turned out to be a nearly a decade of political maneuvering.

The Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline has long been touted by Russia and Iran as an environmental disaster and a economic folly. These two great powers have good reason to feel this way. The pipeline would be laid across the floor of the Caspian in a joint venture by the those nations who border the Caspian and would supply the U.S. and the greater world market with gas that would not be taxed by either Iran or Russia. This is important because the Caspian is arguable one of the most up and coming strategic oil rich regions in the world.

According to Wikipedia, the pipeline was suggested as early as 1996 and it was not until 2007 that Russia has seemed to have definitively blocked the future of the pipeline with an agreement among Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and itself that sets up a plan to pipe gas from interior Asia to Europe. The very interesting point for me though was reading all of the commentary and rhetoric among the Asia nations, many of them hoping to ensure Russian dominance and others hoping to pull closer to America with cheaper sales by avoiding heavy Russian taxation that would certainly be involved in any pipeline plans that routed through Russia.

I guess what is funny about this is the way that Russia's oil cartels are essentially bullied the Caspian countries into submission on this one. Does it all really come down to thug on the corner bullying and mafia style "protection payments" (heavy pipeline taxes on pipelines Russia insists be routed through their country)? At any rate, the Bond movie makes it all more dramatic and he (as always gets the girl), so go out and catch the flick. If you are at all like me, you might also enjoy the plot more now that you know a little more of the obscure backstory.

Syriana

Syriana was a mental exercise, but I'm glad I watched it. I liked the fast pace jumping from storyline to storyline although it took conscious effort to remind myself who the characters were and they were involved with each other. Be forewarned that I am slightly cynical about the business practices of major American oil companies, but I could easily see this movie as a documentary describing how such large deals are made between Big Oil and foreign governments (aside from some of the gratuitous violence).

The storyline in which Matt Damon's character interacts with Prince Nasir at the oasis/hideout thing and when they discuss the mareva injunction really peaked my interest. Basically, Damon's character tells Prince Nasir that Big Oil is just taking advantage of the Middle Eastern people by offering them small percentages of the billions they earn for the rights to control the natural resources that really belong to the Middle Eastern people. When the oil is dried up, the rulers will have their toys, and Big Oil will have moved on, investing their profits in other technologies where they will propagate. Prince Nasir says "Tell me something I don't know," and for the first time I can remember in American media, a Saudi is presented as a progressive thinker. Later on, he talks about having the best interest of his people in mind when he awarded a bid to the higher-bidding Chinese rather than the corrupt American companies. Prince Nasir wants to pass on Big Oil's money to the people, and invest in his country's future. But we step in and wipe him out so that no such thing can happen for the sake of national security.

This really got me thinking. There's so much Eastern anger focused on America based on the huge amount of influence these large oil companies have over Middle Eastern governments, but it takes two to tango. The rulers of these countries we're exploiting have no excuse to have refrained from investing all of this money back into their countries. When the oil money dries up, these oil producing countries will be right back where they were 100 years ago, but it's not the fault of Big Oil: most of the blame sits squarely on the shoulders of their leaders. However, we don't help the situation by complaining about the lack of social progress in these countries while handing their leaders millions of dollars so that we can get our fix. It seems like the only concern we have with the Middle East is a constant supply of cheap oil. And when that runs out, we could care less about what happens. What sucks for the Middle East is that it seems as though their leaders haven't even contemplated that possibility. And I hadn't thought about the leaders not thinking about that until I watched Syriana. Good flick.

If at first you don't succeed...

I saw Syriana when it first came out in December 2009. I was ashamed to admit it, but I never caught on to what was going on. An earlier post revealed they were confused as well and made me realize I was not alone. There are many separate plot lines throughout the movie that the viewer gets tossed in and out of. Just as I was sort of understanding where one plot was headed, the movie switches to another scene from a completely separate plot and I was forced to start the who, what, where and when game all over again.
Because I didn't understand the movie the first time, I didn't feel I was knowledgeable enough to blog about it here. Before watching it again though, I looked up the plot lines in order to give myself some background.
When I watched it again, with context, it made a lot more sense. Obviously I enjoyed it much more this time. I think that I enjoyed it more not only because had a better grasp of what was going on, but I also had more knowledge into the oil background of the movie from this class. The multiple plot lines which involve such a wide range of characters really shows how far reaching oil's influence is. The first time I saw it I felt the multiple story lines were over kill, but now I understand the meaning behind it and can appreciate it.

Thoughts on Giant

OK, I resisted watching Giant again as I had seen this movie more than once before. I did go ahead and watch it again this weekend, and now I am glad that I did, but not necessarily because of its take on the oil business in Texas.

I have always been struck by one of the movie's themes, that of white men settling a land occupied by Hispanics. What I enjoyed the most this go around was something I had forgotten. From the very beginning, Liz Taylor's character (Leslie) gives Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) an earful about how the Texans "stole" Texas from the Mexicans. And the viewer is given the sense that she learns all of this in one night of reading books about Texas, the Alamo, etc...from her home in Maryland. The movie keeps the whites-Hispanic tension theme right up to the end when Bick gets his *&^%#@ kicked by a character named Sarge in a highway diner because he defended the rights of a Hispanic to eat in a white's diner. These are pretty edgy themes for the mid-50s.

OK, I know this is not about the energy business, but I invested some time in watching this movie again and I believe this is one of the most redeeming qualities of this movie.

Now, back to the oil business theme. It's also hard to watch this movie without thinking about these same ranchers now making money off the land. The Jedd Rink character could see the potential in his hard-scrabble piece of land given to him by Bick's sister. Did this same hope that someday that West Texas land would be worth a lot again motivate real life ranchers to hang on all these years, for a pay-out they could never have seen coming? Jedd mumbles his willingness to gamble on his land when offered to be payed off by the Benedict's, and it paid off. No doubt there are parallels with current day ranchers who are seeing a pay-day in the form of wind.

I have to say I enjoyed the movie more than I can remember. Thanks Dr. Webber!

The End of Suburbia: Oil depletion and the collapse of the American dream

"Are today's suburbs destined to become the slums of tomorrow?"

I came across this flick sometime in 2007 while wrapping up my undergraduate degree in Tennessee, bought it off the internet, and showed it to a couple dozen people as an activity in a student club - the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). The story goes: since WWII, North Americans have invested most their cash and new infrastructure in the land of suburbia and created a peaceful, affordable, family living environment. However, the whole system is predicated on cheap, abundant oil - a situation that won't last forever and many forecast won't even last that much longer. Beyond the dire straits presented, a solution is offered in the form of New Urbanism - a theory of urban planning based on the re-building of walkable neighborhoods with local retailers and work-places located closer to home.

As a product of suburbia - the suburb of Hendersonville, TN, 20 miles outside of Nashville - the message of the film bowled a turkey for me. I grew up liking the suburbs, but I fear it's because that's all I knew. The houses were all spacious and familiar; my car was my baby and its breast milk a sweet crude; so a 5 mile drive to the nearest grocery store was a luxury. But it didn't take me long into college to realize that I had lost my appetite for the suburbs in question. Like my first experience with tequila, I'd consumed too much and the taste soon became revolting. I haven't been able to stomach suburbia since. And I'm relieved. I'm actually sitting on a plane as I type this, flying back to my hometown for a day-and-a-half family birthday bonanza and I can feel the dry heaves coming on strong. I remember the houses in my neighborhood look so similar, I hope I can pick out the right front door. You could imagine the conversations: "I don't remember having any brothers and sisters. Oh, I see. Ah, you put your couch in that corner? Cool. Ours is over there. No, no, I like your setup better. No, I really do. You can see the TV better. Where'd you get that painting? TJ Maxx? Yeah, I think I've heard of it... this weather's really something."

Anyway, one of the pundits of New Urbanism makes his mark on this film. James Kunstler's his name, and he's just credible enough to have an impact and just bizarre enough to make you smirk. He calls suburbia in North America "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." I've seen his lecture on TED.com, which is much of the same stuff: most everything in suburbia is not worth saving when it comes down to it. The guy's got a flare for the dramatic, but I fear he's a bit short on answers. He believes the apocalypse can be avoided by changes in architecture and urban planning. I think so too, if the changes were implemented 50 years ago. I think we've gone all in at this point, and cute new neighborhoods won’t be enough to save the rest of our souls.

There's a great joke in the movie - suburban neighborhoods are always named after the things they replaced. Deer Creek, Quail Run, etc. The ones in my hometown are solid too, but are generally more descriptive of the landscape or just simply incoherent - Country Hills, Wyncrest, River Chase, Blue Ridge, Master's Glenn. Subdivision street names can be a riot, too. I've envied pirate-themed neighborhoods - with roads like Pirate Pass and Blackbeard Ave.

Although I do love the idea of New Urbanism, I must be realistic. Suburban people are isolationists, they don't want to be New and they definitely don’t want to be Urban. They're stubborn, and quite capable of squashing the Demon Change. They like the life they lead, and they have every right to. They want their rugrats to grow up in a safe environment like I grew up in, to go to solid schools, and be free from fear. It's in many of our best interests to solve as much of the energy problems behind the scenes as we can. There are too many suburbanites in America to bother changing minds. We just need to be sure to tell them what to buy, and ensure the right product is in the showroom and we can teach them where to plug the thing in.

For fun: random subdivision name generator

“Matewan” typifies a common conflict in the energy industry

For my energy movie blog this week, I have decided to write a few points about the movie “Matewan,” written and directed by John Sales and released in 1987. This is a fictional movie, based on real events and real people, which is set the rural coal town of Matewan in southern West Virginia, circa 1920. For those who have not seen this movie recently or at all, I provide here the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) plot summary of “Matewan.” (By the way, if you have not seen this movie, I highly recommend it.)

Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and gun thugs; Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. Union activist and ex-Wobbly Joe Kenehan, sent to help organize the union, determines to bring the local, Black, and Italian groups together. Drawn from an actual incident; the characters of Sid Hatfield, Cabell Testerman, C. E. Lively, and Few Clothes Johnson were based on real people.


I was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia, and I still visit there as often as I can to see family and friends and to simply feel like I’m home. My upper-middle-class upbringing in the relatively urban capital city of Charleston was a far cry from the poverty and despair of rural, Appalachian coal towns during the early twentieth century. Nonetheless, even in the idyllic environment of my youth, it was easy to see the long-lasting influences, both positive and negative, that the coal industry has had on West Virginia’s people. The movie “Matewan” does a good job of capturing and juxtaposing some of these influences.

From my perspective, the primary benefits that the coal industry has given West Virginia have been economic stability and personal pride. West Virginia is a beautiful state with seemingly limitless mountain forests but very little flat, arable land. The rugged terrain tends to isolate and stagnate the communities in it, both socially and economically. When coal mines started to appear in West Virginia, railroads were built to many small towns in order to haul coal and machinery. This brought in new people, new ideas, and previously unavailable goods, and this all essentially provided the means for these isolated small towns to better interact with the rest of the state and the country. This is a recipe for a sustainable increase in the quality of life for rural Appalachians. West Virginians of the time did not receive the full potential benefit of these new resources, due in very large part to the exploitative practices of big coal companies, assisted by corrupt or inept state and local governments. Nonetheless, as the coal industry in West Virginia has progressed and matured through the twentieth century, I think it has benefited West Virginians more than it has hurt them. (Most West Virginians would probably agree with this statement, but it is important to note that many would not.) When you watch “Matewan,” you will not see many of these benefits – they were not provided to the small towns at that time, which was one of the motivations of the labor unrest of the 1920s (i.e. the setting of the movie).

On the other hand, the negative influences of the coal industry in West Virginia include the death and illnesses of the coal miners, the environmental abuses of the coal companies, and the general victimization of the working class people of the state. “Matewan” vividly illustrates these negative influences in more ways than I can adequately discuss here. This movie describes how miners died in the mines. It shows the lasting effects these deaths had on the families of the miners. It shows how utterly controlled the coal miners were, living in a company town in company houses, shopping at the company store with company money. The movie shows that when the local miners tried to strike for better pay, immigrant Italian and southern African-American miners were brought in to replace them. When all the groups tried to strike, the coal company took strategic steps to incite hatred and violence between the groups of miners, in order to distract attention from the company. The two company strongmen sent to the town to suppress the union are portrayed in the movie as the epitome of evil – they are rude, they insult people, they drink in church while making fun of the preacher, they think nothing of taking someone’s life, and so on. It is interesting that these two company strongmen are portrayed so horribly – it represents a fairly standard opinion that the downtrodden have of their suppressors. The climax at the end of the movie is an all-out gun battle between the coal miners and the company men. This gunfight actually happened; it is referred to as the Matewan Massacre, and it was one of numerous violent conflicts between the people of West Virginia and the coal companies that exploited them.

The victim-victimizer scenario that “Matewan” portrays is set in a coal mining town undergoing a major conflict where death is on the line. However, similar sentiments can be seen across many sectors of the energy industry. One obvious comparison is the modern petroleum industry and how it exploits less-developed countries for their oil. I suspect that a young Iraqi or Nigerian would view international oil companies similarly as a 1920s West Virginia coal miner viewed the coal companies. A less riveting comparison would be a homeowner in American suburbia feeling victimized by the utility company that wants to run a high-energy electricity transmission line or natural gas pipeline next to their property. In all of these cases, the onus is on the energy industry to be sure it is doing business in an ethically sound manner, because any individual victims have limited power to stop the large energy companies.

The Kingdom: Oil as the Setting, Not as the Plot

Like many others, I used this week's blogging assignment as an opportunity to watch "The Kingdom," a movie that I had wanted to see for a while. I will admit that I am a sucker for big budget Hollywood action flicks, and I found the plot/characters/etc. to be interesting, so I definitely enjoyed the movie. What I noticed though (as is hinted at in the title), was that the movie primarily used Saudi oil production as a vehicle to set up a story of intergovernmental politics and terrorism, and that once the "brief history of The Kingdom" intro ended, oil itself didn't seem to be on anyone's mind.

I guess I was just hoping for a more focused look at the intricacies of the linkages between the government and oil industries in Saudi Arabia and America, topics that the movie seemed to leave in the dust after the first few minutes. It may seem obvious to some of us that oil is the entire reason for the movie's existence, but I feel like the general viewer may lose sight of that theme when watching Jamie Foxx dodge RPGs.

I did enjoy the movie's take on the political structure and process in Saudi Arabia, and while I'm sure that situations were sensationalized to a degree, the portrayal of the Saudi power structure was interesting. Specifically, I found it interesting how "pro-American" the higher levels of the Saudi goverment were portrayed as being, and I wonder to what extent that various levels of authority in Saudi Arabia really support a positive relationship with the US government and the American people.

What I believe was most powerful, however, was the overarching theme that despite all the ideological and cultural differences, Saudis and Americans are not so different. If you haven't seen the movie or do not recall, "The Kingdom" ends with the revelation that both the Saudi bomb maker and Jaime Foxx's FBI agent share the same sentiment that "we'll kill them all." I think this is an important message to send when, at least in America, we are so quick to assume that everything we think, know, and love, is the "right way to do it."

A Kingdom of Profit

The Kingdom is a hypothetical depiction of what happens when energy dollars are at risk. The film first explores the Saudi-US nexus of oil investment, and then shows what happens when a terrorist attack on an American compound upsets the balance struck within the Kingdom. The balance between US oil dollars and the cultural changes they bring, the Western friendly royal family, and the traditional values of their subjects all clash in the movie.

While some elements of the war of values may have been dramatized for cinematic effect, I believe the movie shows the basic power structure extant in the every world today. In small nations like the UAE, Kuwait and emerging fields like Azerbaijan, energy dollars have helped fuel incredible growth in a short period of time. However, not all the rapid expansion comes without a cost. In many cases, quick gains have meant a sweeping aside of traditional societal structures and their replacement with more Western ideals that have followed the investments. It seems that emerging energy alternatives, even if expanded to serve a wider market, would be more viral in growth and fit with less friction than most established oil bureaucracies. Many of these structures, as highlighted by the movie's opening presentation, have been inherited from colonial settlements, and thus have a much more profound effect on the countries they enter.

The Kingdom

So I have now watched two depressing movies for this course.  First of all, I guess I really should have read the plot before watching the movie (The Kingdom). As someone whose father is currently in Iraq, the whole attack in the beginning was not so great for me.  I like to think that when he's in the compound he's safe...

The one part that really stood out for me was when they asked "who is paying for all these palaces?" and someone answers "Exxon... Chevron.."  It's interesting because in my Friday class (International Petroleum Concessions and Agreements) we talked about tax structures.  In the US, there are local and federal royalties.  With this system, money goes to the government, but some of the money is also guaranteed to stay local.  One of the problems in places like West Africa is that all the royalties go to the government.  For example, money from production in the Niger Delta can all go straight to Abuja.  None of it is required to stay where the production is which doesn't go over so well with the locals.    I would also like to say that the oil companies have very little say in the tax structure in these countries.  They can negotiate rates, but cannot guarantee where any of the money will go.  I think it is an unfortunate, complicated, and highly misunderstood topic.


The Kingdom....According to Hollywod of course

Action, blood and war is the typical formula for a good hollywood-movie. I would recommend this movie for someone who wants to spend some relaxing time. But I would not recommend it as a movie related with Internacional Policy.

My impression is that this movie does not represent nothing usefull or educational, it only reflects a backward country in many aspects such as tecnological, institutional, military, etc. As far I know, the country has a modern infrastructure and a very beatiful city. I decided to find more information about Saudi Arabia and I found this video that I think it shows more the current society.

Also, the movie mentions some oil companies, like Cheveron and Exxon, as the major responsibles of the fortune of the Princes of this country. About this statement they made I think in part is true but in the other hand this has brought jobs and development for the country.

Undoubtly, if you want to learn something this movie is not going to help you.

Review of “Syriana”

The movie Syriana depicts corruptions of the global oil industry. The movie started with Connex, a big oil company in Texas, lost the drilling right to a high Chinese bid, which alarmed the company and people who is related to oil in the region. As a result, Connex was merged with Killen, a small Texas owned company who possesses the drilling right of Kazakhstan.

There are many similar incidents of oil companies merge in real life. For example, Exxon merged with Mobil in a “historic $80 billion deal that reunites fragments for the Standard Oil monopoly” (CNN Money, 1998). Conoco merged with Philips to form ConocoPhilips, Marathon oil company completes merger of Pennaco Energy, and chemical company Dow Chemical Corporation bought Union Carbide about ten years ago and end up hurting its profit.

The big oil companies use “merging” with another well known oil company as part of their strategy. This corporate strategy results a better finance, because it helps the growing company grow faster, and creates oil giant in the industry. Also, the name “merger” creates an illusion of security. People feel the merger companies will become wealthier and more stable; therefore, more people are interested in the particular company and thus their long term profitability increases.

In the movie, Connex complete its merger with Killen because the company just lost to the drilling rights in Mid-Eastern. Connex chose Killen because it was attracted to Killen’s drilling rights in Kazakhstan. As a result, Connex feels more secure for merging with Killen, and Killen is benefited by being able to grow more rapidly for having a big business entity such as Connex.

I enjoyed the movie Syriana because the movie portrayed a true identity. The story is interesting where it showed oil, terrorism, money, and power. It also demonstrated humanity and the connection between wealth and power.

"Destination Earth": Classic Propaganda from the API

While watching the documentary “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream”, I noticed some funny animation clips integrated into various parts of the film. The source of these clips can be found in the DVD’s bonus features in an animated short from 1956 titled, “Destination Earth”. The cartoon was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and is a classic piece of propaganda from the industry.

IMDB succinctly describes the plot as follows: “A Martian explorer discovers the secrets behind the USA’s prosperity: oil and free enterprise!” There is even a short Wikipedia page dedicated to the cartoon, although the Wiki page carries a more neutral tone in describing the cartoon: “The 13 minute short explains the fundamentals of the petroleum industry and how petroleum products enrich everyday life in the United States of America.”

Perhaps this cartoon was aired in elementary schools to help children appreciate the importance of petroleum in their everyday suburban lives. We obviously still enjoy these benefits today, but at an ever increasing cost. I think the film is quite pertinent even today and reminds us of how truly dependant we are on petroleum for not only running our cars, but for the production of everyday products and goods.

It would be fantastic to put together an animated short to educate our children (and many adults) on present day issues that are a direct result of our modern-day consumer lifestyles: climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation, etc. I think it is safe to assume that the API won’t be backing this type of propaganda any time soon, although you may be surprised by the API’s ‘position’ on climate change.

If you are interested in viewing this unique animated short, head on over to archive.org and watch it for free. You might laugh at or feel disgusted by this piece of propaganda.



The producers and writers may have been a little sloppy with the plot since the Martian is somehow able to fly a spaceship to Earth when he was tasked with solving problems related to the Martian emperor’s limousine back on Mars.


Review of "The Unforeseen"

Despite a growing trend towards believing that the economy and environment need not be at odds, our society has a long way to go in demonstrating this concept with regards to our land use. “The Unforeseen” is a documentary about the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, set in the context of suburban development in Austin, Texas threatening the Edward’s Aquifer and Barton Springs. It explores the effects of real-estate development and the tension between private property rights and the public good. Though not discussed outright, cheap oil makes such developments possible, and thus this documentary implicitly criticizes our society’s use of energy.

Beginning in the 1980s with the attempt to develop huge tracts of land on the Edward’s Aquifer, “The Unforeseen” covers the large public outcry and grassroots mobilization to protect Barton Springs, followed by the Savings and Loan failure in the early 90’s, and, nevertheless, the increasing suburbanization and sprawl of Austin. While the movie includes interviews with developers and real estate brokers, their values of private property rights and economic growth are trumped by the emotive voices of environmentalists. Simply put, the market cannot place a meaningful value on a healthy ecosystem. So when there is a choice between a clean, healthy river and another faceless subdivision, it is easy to go with the former.

An important consideration in the movie is the question of economic growth. As a society, we have yet to define what constitutes positive growth, as opposed to negative growth. While a major goal of modern economic theory is increasing the GDP, the point is well made that not all aspects of the GDP are good for society. If I go out tomorrow and get in a car wreck and have to go to the hospital, the GDP goes up, which is apparently good for society?

Land development and energy use go hand in hand. “The Unforeseen,” however, did not include an explicit mention of the role of energy in the history of Austin. The presence of cheap oil makes suburbia possible and desirable for many Americans. The decreasing price of oil in the 80’s played a role in the Texas Savings & Loan collapse. The effect of increasing gas prices on the future of Austin were only hinted at through the analogy of the physiology of cancer cells. Despite this apparent absence of energy discussion, the entire documentary implicitly asks the larger, umbrella question, “What is a desirable way to live?”

Even with huge gains in our standard of living, there is much of which we can and should be critical. How we use land is a central issue in how we choose to develop as a society. It is as much an energy question as it is a question of real estate finance and private property rights. At what point is the Austin suburban sprawl too much sprawl? When we become like Dallas or Houston? Or like Los Angeles? Once we, too, pollute the skies enough to achieve ozone nonattainment status? Once we run out of water on a future, hot summer day? Once there is nothing unique or different about Austin except its history and its remaining old buildings?

Within the energy community, the biggest question is where we will get enough future energy from to continue our current lifestyle. We are not asking often enough whether we are using this energy responsibly in the first place. “We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man – and womanpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too...” (Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, p 13).

It is difficult to deny the destructive role of energy in our land mis-use, nor the deleterious results: degraded air, water, and soil quality, biodiversity decline, and diminishing ecosystem health. “The Unforeseen” presents a case for restraining our land development; it is a passionate call for rethinking how we live, both as individuals and as a community.

Thoughts on There Will Be Blood

I had been disappointed at being unable to go watch There Will Be Blood with the class earlier this semester, as I thought it might be interesting to watch the movie with other people with vested interest and background knowledge on oil and energy. When I watched it earlier this week, I went a completely different route and watched it with a couple of buddies who had neither, and it made for a different, but still interesting experience. They'd both already watched the movie before, and as the movie is fairly slow paced, we had plenty of chances to discuss what we were watching.

I thought that the first 20 minutes or so of the movie were really, really fantastic in how it depicted miners and oil prospectors and how hard a life it was. Daniel Day Lewis plays a silver miner who very nearly kills himself working in ridiculously hazardous self constructed mines before he fortuitously strikes a seeping oil reservoir. Something my friends commented on was how surprising they found the crude drilling tools when Day-Lewis's character first starts drilling for oil. I remembered seeing the pre-Hughes tools at the Bullock museum, and I thought the movie did a great job of portraying how early oil drilling meant almost literally using clawing the oil out with your bare hands.

The movie does a good job of showing that drilling becomes a more refined and expensive process later on, using large oil derricks that symbolize Lewis's developed business, but gives a very Hollywood spin on it. The guys I was watching with were surprised to learn that despite how Paul Thomas Anderson shows a successful drilling job, not every production well gushes oil through the derrick like Spindletop. Also, derricks and reciprocating pump jacks are visually synonymous, used interchangeably to represent a drilling job through the movie. Despite these inaccuracies, the movie illustrates how expensive, risky, and unpredictable drilling for oil can be.

I loved the final scene of the movie that describes drainage in the now famous milkshake analogy. I was unable to find the transcript of the court case, but the line apparently was almost directly transcribed from former senator Albert Fall when prompted to explain drainage before Congress during the Teapot Dome scandal (Ref USA Today). Without going into mineral rights for moviegoers, the quote offers a simple enough explanation even legislators could understand.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Random thoughts on Who Killed the Electric Car

This movie has some great points but in my opinion would have been a lot more convincing if it had gone a little lighter on the Hollywood stars and scenes like automobile executives not smiling as President Clinton tells the story about the 5 year old who wants to build a future based on the electric car. Documentaries are more effective, like all forms of journalism, when they do not feel biased. This documentary definitely went out of it way to try to make the government, auto industry and the oil industry look bad instead of allowing the deeds of the government, auto industry and oil industry make them look bad. Using Hollywood stars to advocate strikes me as counter productive as well. Why should the public take advice from people who play fictional characters? I have never understood this. The public also views Hollywood stars as rich, which they of course are, and can reasonably question why someone who is very rich should advocate purchases to the masses when the average person lacks the same financial resources. Nonetheless, the documentary does point out that the auto industry and the oil industry acted unethically, as they have many times in the past, and showed a general lack of political leadership and will in Sacramento and Washington.

The auto industry obviously colluded in its decision making about how to react to the California Air Resources Board's decision. There is absolutely no reason a company should not sell an existing product to consumers who want to buy it and thus there was no economic reason for all automobile manufacturers to destroy existing electric cars. Selling electric cars, which have fewer safety concerns than gasoline powered vehicles, wold not create future liability concerns any more than selling used gasoline cars would and selling these cars would have made the auto industry millions of dollars. The oil industry misrepresenting itself to lobby against electric cars was also completely unethical. The oil industry of course has the right to lobby the government but intentionally misleading the public and policy makers is inexcusable and is why the oil industry has and deserves such a bad reputation.

Finally, I would like to complain about General Motors. The movie makes GM out to be the primary villain, I do not know if this is true but given that GM is now in trouble, in large part because it ignored the alternative market (hybrids, electric vehicles) and is way behind Toyota and Honda, I have no sympathy for GM. GM has fought reasonable safety and environmental regulation for decades at an enormous cost to our nation. I have developed a political rule of thumb for myself that basically states if GM is for it, it's probably a terrible idea. Growing up my family owned multiple GM vehicles. They were all terrible. My family now all owns Toyotas and Hondas. I doubt any of us will ever buy any GM product again. Congratulations GM, you are a terrible company, with terrible leadership and a destroyed reputation. You deserve it.

The catch 22 of killing

The Kingdoms receive their wealth from the oil and that wealth is used to supply their palace with everything they may need. Inside each of their Kingdom, there exists tons of corruption. The Prince in this movie does not do an intensive amount of investigating to find out who the terrorists are within his land. Only when the Americans persist to find more information, he allows a thorough amount of investigation.

When you look at the situation from the Prince’s point of view, you can see why he is not able to rid his Kingdom of the terrorists with his own resources. If he were to begin searching for them, he would be killed and his entire Kingdom would be taken over. At least this way he has some control over his land even if it is very little.

The Americans killing the terrorists does not help the never ending cycle of children growing up thinking that the west is evil. The children of these terrorists see their parents killed and remember it for the rest of their lives. You can not erase that memory. I believe that if the Prince had organized some way to capture them through his people, the children will not feel as much hatred towards the westerners. Again, there would be a huge amount of turmoil within the Kingdom. This whole situation goes way over my head and seems like a Catch 22. It’s a pathetic you kill me, I kill you battle.

On a lighter note, during the entire movie, I was confused since Jennifer Garner did not have a huge action scene. Then, during the last fifteen minutes, she has an intense action scene. It was so hilarious to see and predictable since we know that they can’t make the movie without giving her a significant action piece.

Society Reflected in Hollywood

When Dr. Webber suggested an energy class which ties together popular media of the time, "Hollywood", with the history of energy, I thought it was a great idea. We all know that to some extent, movies reflect our current culture, especially when it comes to apocalyptic type movies. The filmmakers know that for some strange reason, people like to see a movie which reflects their current fears . There are several categories of apocalyptic movies: attacking aliens/outer space disaster, monster attacks, widespread incurable disease and last, but probably the most likely to actually happen, the environmental/energy disasters.

When the gas crises of the late 1970's hit, the Mad Max movies, staring Mel Gibson, were released . They are really kind of corny if you've seen them, but the premise of these movies is that the world has basically been destabilized because of energy (oil) shortages. Mel Gibson is fighting the lawless gangs in Australia and gas is a very sought after commodity.

Water World (Ken Costner, it was grossly over budget as I recall), The Day After Tomorrow (Dennis Quad) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (that Steven Spielberg film with the little boy who is kind of annoying) all are based on the premise that global warming has caused some big change in our world's climate, which dramatically alters the human way of life. All of these films did pretty good at the box office and are worth seeing if you haven't seen them.

These are just a few examples of an energy/environmentally caused apocalypse. We can be assured that more of these movies are to follow with an actual energy/environmental crises looming.

Manufactured Landscapes

I have included images in this piece because I want everyone too see the importance of imagery in conveying context. A chinese man whose photo was taken at the three gorges dam commented "It's a very broad view. It's hard to see the detail." And I think this comment was more relevant to our context halfway around the world, than the image itself. So I have included the images to provide a little detail behind your personal belongings.

This image is of a shipbreaking shore in Chittagong, Bangladesh. It is part of the movie and Edward Burtynsky's work - showing what happens to our oil tankers. We see them manually disassembled in the film and the 18-20 year old men who scrape the leftover crude from the bottom. I got the image from the article I linked for this entry.

I would like to thank Dr. Webber for giving us this assignment because I've wanted to watch this film since last semester and never got around to it. It's fantastic and I highly recommend it. The trailer is a little doomsday, so see relevant clips here. Just ignore the creepy music in it and the film.

A quote by the photographer explains the point of the film best:
"There are times when I have thought about my work and putting it into a more politicized environment. If I said "this is a terrible thing we are doing to the planet", then people will either agree or disagree. By not saying what you should see, that may allow them to look at something they have never looked at and see their world a little differently. So I think many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot, where we do not necessarily give up what we have, but we realize what we're doing is creating problems that run deep. It's not a simple right or wrong, it needs a whole new way of thinking."


The film begins with 7 minutes of silence as a camera strafes the length of a manufacturing and assembly plant. You see the chinese workers, and the succession of manual labor that goes behind our irons and fans.

The film then moves from a newly assembled iron to a piece of iron scrap metal in an enormous pile of scrap metal. Workers are sorting the waste and being berated for laziness. We then see beautiful mosaics of beer cans compressed into neat cubes.

The point of these images is to show how massive the manufacturing and waste services of China is. How these operations are mostly manual labor, because it's so cheap. And most importantly, as Burtynsky tells us that 50% of the worlds computers end up in China, that you and I are responsible for it. Our e-waste is taken apart by the Chinese people for valuable scrap and the toxic materials inside have permanently ruined their water tables.

The image is from http://www.businessweek.com/.

Next, the film moves onto the energy that drives China's development as the world's scapegoat (my own opinion.) Burtynsky recounts when he was driving and realized that oil not only powered his car, but went into his plastic steering wheel, the paints, and manufacturing of the glass. Oil, he says, "is the key building block of the last century." It allows us "mobility and freedom." Now that China is the manufacturer of the world, it will have a very different energy footprint. "How long will they be able to sustain?"

Not sustain it.

How long will they sustain?

Some facts from the film: Coal plants are built weekly in China and 27 Nuclear plants are planned over the next 10 years.

The biggest proof of the importance of energy is the Three Gorges Dam. It will include 26 700,000 kW generators and 6 back-up generators, capable of producing 84.7 billion kWh/year.

To build this dam, 1,100,00 people were relocated. We see them in the film, hired to tear down their own homes and cities and rebuild them out of the way.

The film makes me wonder about the importance of growth and production, energy and materials, over people. But most importantly, it reveals that this importance is something we all share responsibility for and that takes place every day, everywhere.

The Kingdom

Over Spring Break, we watched our recent Netflix movie, The Kingdom, and I must say I learned a lot. The intro might seem long for the average viewer, but I enjoyed the mini documentary. As Entertainment weekly says,"The three-minute intro that PIC produced gives viewers a succinct and entertaining historical background, and it saved Berg from having to shoehorn a time-consuming backstory into his film." With the history lesson out of the way, the movie takes you through the twists and turns of the complicated problems in the Middle East - but not without a few surprises....
The first thing I learned was about these Aramco communities. I never knew that one of my uncles lived and worked in one similar to the one in the movie for several years. I forget who said it in class, but I agree that the movie portrayed the community as a bit more hick than my uncle explained. He said it was a mix of people from around the world and they were all a bit eccentric, but smarter than your average bear. I wonder why the director decided to give the impression of small town west Texas. Did anyone catch the Tim McGraw character?
The next thing I learned was about bombs. There is a very surprising link between marbles in the film that is one of my favorite parts. When the marble first appeared, I asked my father about it, "Why was there a marble in the bomb?" To my surprise, my mother answered! My math teacher of a mother knew more about bombs than I felt comfortable with. I guess a few years of working for the Navy doing weapons testing will teach you a few things about how to make an effective car bomb?! When the character played by Jennifer Gardner tries to make a small Saudi Arabian child stop crying towards the end of the movie, the marble reappears for a twist I don't want to spoil for y'all. It definitely goes to show that we are fighting a very different type of enemy in the Middle East.
Heading into the end of the movie, it was still unclear to me whether the movie was more pro-peace or pro-war. It seemed clear that oil was involved in the matter, but it also displayed the complicated differences between our two cultures - Americans and Saudi Arabians. I guess my question was cleared up in the end - and the answer was kind of neither. What the director did by having both an American and Saudi extremist say, "We are going to kill them all" was ask the question - when will all this end? And will anyone be coming out of it alive?

What Happened?

This week I watched the movie Syriana, and to me, it was confusing as hell. Which, by the way, I think is one of the motives of the movie. The characters in the movie are confused most of the time about their lives and the role they play in the world. With the multiple story lines continuously switching it makes the viewer become confused and only after the movie did I realize that that is the way I was supposed to feel in order to connect with the characters.

The movie does have a pretty ant-American sentiment throughout the plot. With CIA agents interacting with Hezbollah, Energy Analyst's profiting off their son's death, and overall sense that the American government will do whatever it takes to capture oil profits, you don't come away from the movie feeling too positive about the US.

Overall I liked the movie. However, like I said before, during the movie - I wasn't a big fan. After the movie I really liked it. As someone who thinks it would be interesting/fun/rewarding to become an energy analyst, it really made me think about where the line is while performing the job. My opinion? - Two Thumps Up!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bologna makes you horny

I just watched Coal Miner's Daughter. It tells the story of Loretta Lynn, based on her autobiography, and her rise from an obscure mining town to fame. She is the daughter of a coal miner in rural Kentucky, growing up around World War II.

Coal plays a minor role in the movie. The whole idea behind being a "coal miner's daughter" is that she must leave her small town behind to pursue her dreams because there is nothing for her in the coal mining town. Her husband wants to take the family away because he doesn't want to end up doing nothing with his life but being a lousy coal miner.

The movie does hit a few themes related to coal. Coal mining jobs are plentiful but come with low paying wages and you must struggle to survive. There are a few shots of dirty coal miners' faces in the beginning, maybe suggesting coal is dirty. There are no hacking coughs related to coal mining, but Loretta's father dies at a young age (~50s... causes never shared.) Her mother died (not portrayed in the movie) from cancer, but I was unable to find what type of cancer.

Other notes: Tommy Lee Jones looks like Brad Pitt... not good news for Brad Pitt as he ages. If you want to know about bologna making you horny, you must watch the movie! The title links you to imdb's page about the movie.

Friday Night Lights

The movie Friday Night Lights is about a oil town in west Texas that lives and dies by high school football. This is the case in many small towns in Texas which is why so many recruiters spend time going to these small towns games to find hidden talent (Colt McCoy). Oil is a very small part of this movie in fact the oil derricks shown throughout the movie may be the only time oil is referenced. The book does a better job of discussing the cycles of the oil economy which define this town. There are other subtle references such as all the for sale signs in the town and the sense of depression in the town. The kids and adults talk about football as if it is the only way to "get out of this town" because there are no opportunities left. In a town built on oil when the oil is gone a mass exodus of people follows and the people left in the town do not have any good options left.
This movie makes me think about what oil can do to a place. When oil is found, people will up and move their entire lives to follow it. It will make them a lot of money, as oil is doing today. Our University has an entire department devoted to drilling for oil and the highest salaries for mechanical engineers are found in the oil industry. Oil is also making entire countries wealthy. Oil pays for a large amount of the budget for Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, and the list goes on. What happens when the oil in these countries runs dry? Will these small Texas towns be a blueprint for what happens in the Kingdom when the oil production starts to decline? Will the entire region be thrust into chaos when all of their money is pulled out from under them? The economy in these oil rich regions is not very diversified and the loss of oil production maymake these regions unstable. The current leaders can stay in power because they have money and are making money for the country. What happens when the cash flow is gone? Hopefully these countries will not follow the path of some failed oil boomtowns or even worse a country like Afghanistan.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

There Will Be Blood

I greatly enjoyed the movie that I attended with Dr. Webber and other members of the class. It tells the story of a miner who becomes an extremely wealthy oil man – but at a great cost. I had expected the movie to be more “preachy,” criticizing capitalism or oil directly. Instead, I feel old fashioned greed was an underlying theme. Daniel, the miner, lives a generally solitary (his only companion his adopted son) life as he pursues his goals without hindrance until he crosses paths with another ambitious man, Eli. Eli’s choice of profession – preacher – helps create an interesting rival for Daniel. Under the guise of helping his church, Eli quietly torments Daniel throughout the movie.

I appreciated the slow(ish) pace and that the movie was “quiet.” Many other movies (including really good ones like “The Kingdom”) are full of explosions, yelling and sometimes unnecessary complications. I felt that the characters and their respective situations drove the pace of the movie and carried the weight that “action” usually pulls. The quality of acting went a long way in helping me understand the attraction of the lifestyle that most of the oil pioneers lived. I felt a rush when they struck oil and felt the sense of power that came with possibilities that oil brought. I think there must have been more than money motivating these people to take the risks they did.

Oil represented possibilities beyond riches to people. There was an opportunity to play a role in building up a relatively very new nation – a country with unsure borders that was still seen as full of endless possibilities. Oil gave the common person a chance to take part in this, to support industry growth and fuel inventions to better everyone’s lives. Daniel was consumed by his greed, but I think many other people in his position survived oil prospecting with their kindness intact – take Rockefeller whom we heard about in lecture.

The movie begins with the scene of the death of one oil working and continues with scenes of hardship and more death. We see how hard people had to work to make our lives the way they are (for better and worse). I have to wonder how many of them could really understand how far-reaching an impact oil would have. As we all know, it’s more than a fuel. It means medication, health care, food...And it’s what ultimately allowed for the advances in technology that we have. For all the bad we see in oil now, I think it is important to remember that we owe it a lot. Personally, I don’t believe we could possibly have made the advances we have as quickly as we have without oil (and coal…). Though I do think it’s time to move on.

We'll kill them all

I watched The Kingdom, thinking it looked interesting after seeing the trailer in class Thursday. Although the beginning was gripping, there was something about it that was unsettling. The backdrop is definitely oil related, but it seemed to be a film more about revenge and hatred justified by basing it around such a tender subject. It begins with an attack on a company softball game for an American oil company by local Saudi militants. An FBI agent is killed by a car bomb shortly after the attacks, and Jamie Foxx and three other agents somehow finagle their way to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack. It was amazing to see how the local goverment guarded the American FBI agents who were investigating the attacks. It definitely made me wonder how much of that was a realistic portrayal of the actual situation and how much was dramatized for the silver screen.

The thing that disturbed me the most about this film was how they used children to garner an emotional response. On the American side, we're exposed to two children of the FBI agents, one whose father was killed in the attack. As much as they are portrayed as being innocent, the Saudi children are portrayed much different. A son of one of the militants, maybe 10ish, is forced to watch the initial attack on the softball game, against his will, and later ends up shooting one of the agents near the end of the movie. A young daughter is seen playing with a marble that was used to create shrapnel in the car bombing. It made me realize how lucky we are to not live in this situation; it is much easier to stomach war when it's not all around you. I can't imagine the fear instilled in a child when a car bombing, suicide bombing, or similar attack is a common occurance.

It is revealed at the end of the movie that Foxx and his team's motives in going to Saudi Arabia is to get revenge. He tells one of his colleagues not to cry about the other agents death because they will "kill them all." The movie ends with the young son saying his militant leader grandfather's last word to him were "don't fear them my son, we will kill them all." It definitely left me questioning our global relations, wondering if it will ever end.

Oil as the backdrop....

When Ben brought up the book Friday Night Lights in class on Tuesday my mind was quickly drawn to a clip I remembered seeing in Season 1 of the TV series that is inspired by the book. I also read the book a few years ago (and enjoyed it), but didn’t start watching the show until recently, when I needed a study break and ended up cruising to nbc.com for their free episode downloads.

As in the movie Giant, Friday Night Lights gives the viewer information on the ups and downs of a town that depends (almost solely) on oil for its prosperity. In Giant, oil is spoken of directly. Oil is a source of great wealth for the main characters. However, oil and wealth do not equal happiness in this movie. In Friday Night Lights (the TV show), oil is the backdrop, rarely spoken of directly but a constant influence over the entire show.

In season one, episode 4 one of the characters, Tyra equates the town’s dependence on oil as a drug addicts dependence on crack. She speaks of the oil boom in the town, and the negative effects when that boom came and went. She alludes to the town’s reliance on the worlds continues dependence on oil. She wishes that oil had never been found in the town, because of its direct affects on the people in the town (both good and bad). Not your typical Beverly Hillbillies view of prosperity and happiness associated with finding oil.

Oil = an addictive drug that both makes and destroys lives?

Friday Night Lights

Having grown up in Texas and spending 9 years of my youth playing football (2 years in pee-wee, 2 years in middle school, 4 years in high school, and 1 year in the Western Australian League), it is only natural that I would be drawn to the book Friday Night Lights. A movie and a loosely based TV series have also been made on the book. FNL is book that chronicles the season of the Odessa Permian High School football team, but it's about alot more than oil.

The true story is set in blue collar oilfield services town of Odessa, TX, which is smack dab in the middle of the Permian Basin. It does a very good job of discussing oil by using it as a back drop for everything that goes on in the book, and does not make the mistake of over sensationalizing discoveries, as many other works of literature do.

For many of the people of Odessa, high oil prices mean prosperity, and low oil prices mean hopelessness. The book does a great job of describing how when times are good, streets are flush with new money, and suddenly rich people with private jets and Rolexes. It then goes on to discuss the home foreclosues and massive unemployment that besieges the city with the downturn of the 80's. This was very true in Odessa, and was true, but to a smaller degree in Houston.

I think the reason FNL portrays the oil industry in such a truthful way, is that they stick with the macro issues instead of trying to make a good story from a single venture. I've lost count of how many movies of TV shows I've seen where a person drilling a well was happy when oil comes gushing up through the derrick painting everything black. While some people think this means prosperity, to me, this means get ready to pay environmental fines and be sued.

The oil industry, while still being exciting in my opinion, must be sensationalized by Hollywood to be movie worthy. I guess this is true of pretty much any industry in the movies. As far as in the movies, and in popular culture in general, I wish oil could be portrayed in a little bit more positive light. The reality is, if portraying the oilman as black cadillac driving scoundrel that would swindle his own grandmother will sell movies, it will continue to be done.

Syriana & The Kingdom & The Matrix

Both these movies emphasize the turmoil, risk, uncertainty, of the region and highlight the complex and difficult relationships occurring between governments, industry, and ordinary people.
I think that an interesting point can be taken from these movies (based on reality). These movies, however enteratining and dramatized they may be, highlight the West's continued failed foreign policy toward the middle east. The history of our relationship with the Middle East could be a study in failed foreign policy.

On another less serious note, for those who remember the great computer geek-scifi thriller- of our highschool lives (I think) . . . . The Matrix was driven by a underlying energy theme. The robots needed a new inexhaustable source of energy which they found in people (thus the reason for the martix and premis for the entire movie). An interesting twist on the same old energy story!

The Truth!

You would think that the content shown in movies like Syrianna and Kingdom would be exaggerated for the sake of entertainment, but it's said to be even worse. My uncle works for a major oil company in the Niger Delta and he tells me that he has a whole convoy of police protection whereever he goes as kidnapping and murder of foreign employees is pretty common. Kingdom portrayed a mini city of foreign nationals that was completely isolated from the rest of the country( Saudi Arabia). I thought that the main theme of the movie was eye-opening. Jamie Foxx and his group of officials go to Saudi Arabia to investigate the crime scene left behind after a terrorist attack but mainly to take revenge. In the end they kill the main militant supremo who masterminded the attack and the movie finishes with the grandchild of the slain militant vowing to take revenge. I think that this brought out a very imporatant point. That this would be a never ending cycle and it would be at the expense of many innocent lives.

Syriana

After hearing so much on this film for the energy movie of the week, I felt that it did a good job on depicting the energy business, especially all the turmoil that goes along with it.
The movie started off a little slow and confusing but that was due to the multiple stories being portrayed.
As the film progresses, stories line up and made more sense and you really begin to really understand all the tragedies and corruptions that energy people have to go through. The whole movie basically showed all the stories of several people that were linked in some way to a huge oil and gas merger.
Overall the movie was satisfactory, George Clooney and Matt Damon always do great jobs acting, and I felt that it was really effective at showing the feelings behind all the characters portrayed. As I said before, the movie took a little longer than expected to reach the climax and so I sort of lost a little interest in the middle of the movie. But once all the stories tied together it really showed all the stories, like with Arash taking his frustrations on the world out on the LNG plant, and the convergence of Bob Barnes(George Clooney), Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), and Prince Mohammed Sheik Agiza (Amr Waked) .

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On "There Will Be Blood"

I was one of the students that went with Dr. Webber to watch “There Will Be Blood” and personally I didn’t really enjoy the movie but I’m glad I did watch it because the movie ended up being a big hit with several Oscar nominations – it’s always good to be up to date on the latest movies.

Anyway, on the topic of oil I found the movie to be somewhat inspiring. I know it sounds surprising considering I didn’t like it but it actually inspired me to want to learn more about the history of the oil industry in the US and the laws that govern it. A lot of the movie revolved around the rivalry between Plainview and Standard Oil. I am somewhat familiar with the history of Standard Oil and how it was broken into several companies but I was never completely aware of the circumstances. As such, I recently bought and I am currently reading “The Prize” by Daniel Yurgin. Everyone refers to this book as the authority on the history of oil and I figured it’s about time that I learned the history of the industry that I’ll be joining soon.

On a different note, I found it surprising how Mr. Plainview offered the family some money to drill on their land but he never talked about any royalties from the production. My next research (after finishing The Prize) is to try and understand the laws that govern how much money people are paid if someone else drills on their land.

In summary, even though I didn’t like the movie I ended up benefiting in that it instilled in me the desire to learn the history of the oil industry – maybe that’s a good argument for watching more TV.

"The Kingdom" lifestyle

I had never really been able to picture what a community would look like where oil company employees lived until watching "The Kingdom." I would assume that this is pretty close to what the real communities would look like, and after watching the opening scene, it struck me how much of a risk it is to work in foreign countries with such potential risks. I mean, I had always known it's dangerous, but after seeing a vivid description of something that could take place, it was just more realistic. And it's not just in the Middle East, but Africa as well.

We had family friends who were stationed in Africa per their company, and with all the political turmoil going on, it was only a matter of time before their area was under attack, and the entire family was forced to flee leaving everything behind. I guess it really makes you think how far can you go before something like this could happen. I realize the compensation is much better, but sometimes, at what cost?

I suppose it's just the nature of the beast, but movie or not, "The Kingdom" showed how easily tragedy can strike a community of people who are just doing their job trying to help solve the world's energy crisis.

the kingdom

At the heart of The Kingdom lies America’s complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia, rooted in our desire for oil and worsened by our presence in the region. Saudi Arabia is interesting because of the constant struggle to balance modernity spurned by massive oil profits and the traditional religious conservative beliefs. The collision of these different ideals presents problems for both the U.S. and the House of Saud.

Our involvement and presence in Saudi Arabia directly influences radical Islamic sentiment against the United States. Attacks by bin Laden and al Qaeda can be traced directly to our defense of the Saudi Kingdom and the placement of half a million U.S. troops down the road from Mecca. This is not a judgment on the First Gulf War, but an accurate example of why anti-American sentiment is fervent.

What I find most intriguing about the movie is the alternative to our current foreign policy that it presents. The response by the F.B.I. in The Kingdom presents a complete reversal of our current policy against extremist violence around the world. This is significant in that it presents a different idea of dealing with crises in such a delicate region of the world, possibly with a little more success.

I find the movie to be an optimistic but honest look at our relationship with those in the Middle East. The Kingdom attempts to address a crisis in the Middle East not with brute force, but with cooperation and trust. In the end, the movie shows us that we may think the Western and Middle Eastern cultures are radically different, but in reality, they’re more similar than we think. And, Jamie Foxx gets to be a badass for an hour and a half.

Energy + Politics= Made for each other

I can't think of one single movie with an energy theme that didn't have some sort of political issue or corruption play a major part. Energy is always portrayed as a means for wealth, and the wealth in turn, turns major stakeholders either completely beserk (There will be blood), corrupt (The company being sued Erin Brockovich and just about everyone on the TV show Dallas, if I remember accurately) or both (There will be blood & Dallas). I don't remember beverly hillbillies too well, but if there was no corruption or craziness in that show, it's probably because it was a comedy.
As they say, art imitates life, so I have no problems with the truth being conveyed in the movies. If there is anything that we should learn from these movies, is that ethical responsibility will forever be a part of our legacy. At any point down the road in our lives, when we are faced with making decisions that will forever define us; I hope we all remember that the truth will always be revealed, especially in the United States (not so much in my home country, Nigeria, but Godwilling we will reach that level of freedom of speech/ information someday).
Another thing about America, is that if the story is sensational enough, or if the subject was rich, and powerful enough, a movie/TV show/documentary/book will be based on the story and the subject will forever be linked to the scandal, regardless of the rest of the subject's life.

"Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads..."



If you haven't seen Back to the Future yet, stop reading this post and go watch it right now. Back to the Future and Back to the Future II are quite possibly the best movies ever made. From using a lightning strike to generate the requisite 1.21 Gigawatts (mispronounced as "jigowatts" in the movie) to running a Delorean's fusion engine on banana peels and beer cans, numerous energy themes run throughout all three Back to the Future movies.

Back to the Future II is probably the most interesting as it shows what many people in the 1980s thought the future might be like in 2015 (flying cars, "skyways," hoverboards and all). I'm still waiting for my hoverboard (a Pitbull of course).

It's definitely worth a first or second look. Unless of course you're chicken...

Movies with energy themes—sugar coat the pill!!

Erin Brockovich is definitely a movie which managed to touch the masses and the classes though the theme was serious. The same can’t be said of all movies with energy theme though. For instance, for the recent ‘There will be blood’ I hear there have been hardly any takers (in spite of the Oscar awards) and it has been totally panned in my country by the movie-going- public. But Erin Brockovich had a very decent run and captivated quite a few hearts. The film reportedly grossed more than $125 million at the box office.
(www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid)

Having seen both movies, I feel the treatment is the key to make movies with serious themes a success. Well, why such a commercial attitude, do I see raised eyebrows? The way I see it, it’s important for such messages to reach as many people as possible. Only then awareness can be created at the grass roots level which can be translated into action. Presenting a serious theme in dark somber shades can get you a few awards but most laymen prefer to miss such movies.

In Erin Brockovich, the environment theme was cleverly woven into the narrative and the overall presentation still adhered to tried and tested successful formula. It was a tale of human beings trapped in a situation and triumphing and made for a feel-good movie. The environment issue came thru as well—that’s a double whammy, in my opinion.

So in a nutshell, here’s my take on movies with energy content: sugar-coat the pill and try and reach out to the masses as well. It’s good to win the approval of the educated elite but better still to grab the eyeballs of the rest of humanity as well!!

A GIANT Landscape

I spent Spring Break exploring the region of West Texas represented in Giant, and, appropriately, watched the film along the way. In fact, we stayed at El Paisano Hotel in Marfa to round out the week: the hotel where the actors relaxed after shooting. I never did get straight exactly whose room it was we were staying in, but it was one of the big three, and they enjoyed a great balcony. A warning before I go on: it took 4 separate viewings to actually finish the movie Giant. Get ready for a worthy marathon.

The movie was fantastic. It walks you through the height of big Texas ranching, through the oil prospecting 20's and 30's, all the way to the era of "progress" when the film was shot (1959). It shows you just how these two great industries learned to occupy the same land, tapping into separate but seemingly inexhaustible resources.

Few other industries have made it that far into the Pecos region of Texas, giving a visit the surreal sense of stepping back in time. Windmills are popping up a hundred miles further east - a bit closer to transmission capabilities. But the reasons that make west Texas a fairly inhospitable environment also make it a prime location for the renewable energy boom we all hope to witness. The average windspeed is enough to blow you off of your feet if you happen to slouch. The sun will bake you unrecognizable in a matter of hours if you forget your hat and sunscreen. Try hiking out into that territory for a few days, carrying your own water and food (good luck catching a jackrabbit), and your respect for the local cattle population and early farmers will quadruple.

Unrelated to energy, but still worth noting, is how faithfully Giant presents the human rights and racial prejudice issues in Texas history (and present, for that matter).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Overall I really liked the movie. In particular I liked the format of the movie script, where they presented the various suspects, told us about their motives, and cast judgment on their involvement. I could done without the Mel Gibson interview, and his stance on another issue. Is it just me or do others think that he looks like Ted Kaczynski?.

I also liked the deleted scenes. There is one called "Do you want to have this argument on camera?" Where one of the EV1 salespeople goes to car museum to see a EV1 and has a confrontation with one of the staff members at the museum.

Check out the link to the site above. There is a lot of background info, new info, and related info to the EV1 and other vehicles.

Monday, March 24, 2008

electricity security and markets

I read an article in RFF's (Resources For the Future) magazine titled, "Electricity Markets and Energy Security: Friends or Foes?" by Timothy Brennan, an RFF fellow. The article discussed the relationship between energy security and electricity market deregulation. Brennan discussed how electricity markets may affect different types of energy security including short term security, long term security, environmental security and national security. For short term security, Brennan considers two risks: blackouts and price. He says,

Blackouts are harmful, but so are high energy prices, particularly for those with low incomes for whom utility bills constitute a significant fraction of their monthly spending. Importantly, and unfortunately, mitigating one of these security interests can exacerbate the other. The cost of preventing blackouts is quite high.

He didn't conclude with a recommendation for minimizing short term security risks, but rather indicated the importance of weighing the relative importance of the two concerns noted above.

Second he considered the security in the long term, the issue being overall expansion of generation and transmission capacity. One of the main barriers to creating a secure network for transmission and generation is NIMBYism and he noted that recently the secretary of energy was granted the authority to order states to allow the construction of transmission lines, even lines that may not power the state. These long term security issues will be difficult to deal with in a deregulated electricity market.

Brennan also considered the environment as part of security. Fortunately in the electricity sector, there are fewer "actors" than in the transportation sector, so GHG regulation should be easier to implement than say regulation of auto fumes. His main point was that deregulation should be a positive in regards to environmental security because a carbon tax or cap and trade system would operate more effectively.

Lastly, Brennan discussed the implications of electricity markets on national security. Terrorists may target our electricity transmission grid, but contended that market regulation would not affect national security: "Because the system is so interconnected, it would remain regulated even if wholesale and retail markets for electricity became open." He did note, however, that deregulation would cause even more interconnectedness in the electricity grid, possibly making an attack on the grid even more destructive.

His general message is that markets, in general, improve security. This opinion falls out of basic free market concepts: innovation will reduce prices and improved security measures will be developed as demand rises for these measures. He also predicts that free markets will result in redundancy and that security will be improved because the country isn't relying on a single supplier, a single point of failure. He qualified his recommendation, though, discussing the role of electricity as a "collective good." The reliability and security of the electricity must not be left solely to independent sellers and buyers because blackouts and price spikes won't just affect single customers or single sellers. He ended with a useful illustration of our options:

At one extreme,we might need no more central planning than air-traffic controllers exercise in the airline industry. Air space can be policed to avoid collisions without precluding competition among carriers to transport passengers and freight. At the other extreme, a central controller may need to control dispatch of generators in the short run and investment in generation over the long run to ensure reliability as well as efficiency.

I generally agreed with Brennan's analysis, although I wouldn't have had he ommited his consideration of the "collective good" aspect of electricity. Markets can and often do produce benefits to all consumers, but they don't necessarily care for those who can't afford to pay premiums for security or who can't afford to lose a refrigerator full of food. For Americans, electricity has become nearly a basic need on par with food and shelter. Everyone (except maybe for the few who have a generator and a big gasoline tank at their houses) would be affected by brownouts and blackouts, but not everyone would be affected by a rise in electricity costs. For some, electricity represents a significant fraction of their income, so care must be taken in all considerations of electricity regulation and policy to avoid taking this vital resource from those who can barely afford it.