ImageI always appreciate responses from readers - even when they come as rhetorical letter-bombs. A recent one, published in the Atlantic Herald as a letter to the editor, was one of these. It's worth including here, for readers who might have missed it. Debbie Fay in Highlands, NJ, writes:

In response to Mr. Zimmerman's column "Going for the Moron Vote" he quotes:

1. "Mr. Obama has joined other lawmakers in bashing oil companies for "obscene" profits. He wants to tax their "windfall profits" and spend the money on "alternative energy sources". Yet he is opposed (as most Democrats are) to using nuclear power or coal (of which we have hundreds of years' supply) to generate power."

First of all, how will nuclear power and coal help with the price of oil? Do we not have nuclear power plants now? Is there no way to use water generators to produce power? And why are the bigwigs at the oil companies raking in the dough, while the poor consumer has to go without just to make it to work. Nowadays, not only mom & dad have to work, but junior needs a job to help offset the price of taking him to his soccer games.

2. "He [Barak Obama] will not allow oil recovery from shale, which experts believe might contain some 800 billion barrels of oil. And he is unalterably opposed to drilling in either the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (where some 10 billion barrels of oil can be tapped) or off our coasts (where experts believe potential reserves of at least 18 billion barrels lie)."

It has been noted in other news publications that even if permission to drill was granted today, it would be at least 5 - 10 years before any oil was brought out. What should we do in the meantime, Mr Zimmerman? Perhaps if the already developed hydrogen engine were available, it COULD solve a lot of problems. Was it not a Republican that recently offered 30 million to the first person to develop a battery run car? And in both your quotes, you use the word "might". Could the opposite of that be "might not"?

3. "Mr. Obama has gone on record saying that we can't expect to keep driving SUVs, eat as much as we want and set our thermostats at 72 degrees, and have the rest of the world say, ‘OK.' ‘Who is HE to tell us what we can drive and what we can eat?' [A blogger's question, not mine.] It's a good question to which I have no answer."

As far as Mr Obama's comments, I will ask you, Mr Zimmerman, who are you to guzzle all the gas in your Hummer? Didn't GM just close plants that make SUV's due to lack of sales & increasing gas prices? Did YOU learn nothing from the gas lines back in the 70's? And no one else I know is setting their thermostats above 68. Us 'po' folks' just can't afford those prices either, and most of own sweaters.[sic]

4. And finally....MORONS? While I may not agreee [sic] with your beliefs and philosophies, I would never think you a moron. Or post an article calling many others one.

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Readers will divine, from Miss Fay's tone, that she was annoyed with me. Perhaps I offended her by my flippant use of the term "moron" to describe voters who lack understanding about complex issues and end up voting for a candidate who actually opposes their interests. So I want to apologize, in case she felt I was dissing her simply because she has a different viewpoint on the matters under discussion. (Truly, I didn't expect any responses, but this business is full of surprises.) Now, let's move on to her questions, which I shall address as dispassionately as I can. This column has a teaching function, so I welcome the opportunity to answer concerns that are on readers' minds. Light is always preferable to heat.

How will nuclear power and coal help with the price of oil? asks Miss Fay. The answer is pretty simple. Using other fuels will lessen demand for oil and lower its price. Unfortunately, radical environmentalists (in league with others who lack understanding) have demonized coal and nuclear - both very plenteous fuels - for some 30 years. This has pushed producers of electric power into using oil and natural gas in order to avoid regulatory red tape and endless litigation. Power utilities just want to make electricity - they don't want a Shootout at the OK Corral.

Natural gas used to be a cheap fuel for heating homes. We have huge reserves of it. In the last 10 years it has doubled in price because more and more power plants are burning it instead of coal. There is still plenty of natural gas, but we can't produce it fast enough to keep the price down.

Other power plants switched from coal to oil to avoid environmental hassles. There is no need for this. Technologies now exist that can "scrub" the emissions from coal, making it as clean as natural gas or oil. When we use coal, we are keeping the price of oil and natural gas down.

The same goes for using nuclear fuel to generate electricity. Wherever we can do this, we should, because it will conserve oil or natural gas, which we need for applications like cars and home heating. Miss Fay asks, "Do we not have nuclear power plants now?" Well, yes, we do have some, and that's good. But we haven't built any new ones since the late 1970s, when a fairly minor accident at Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania) scared the wits out of us. Since that time, the mere mention of the word "nuclear" makes some people run for bomb shelters.

Isn't there a risk in using nuclear power? Yes, there's some risk, as there is in nearly every valuable activity or product. If we went by the principle of foreswearing anything entailing risk, we wouldn't drive cars or use electrical appliances or swim or sail or play baseball or light fires or get vaccinated or x-rayed - plus many other activities that enrich our lives.

When I was a boy, a gasoline tanker-truck blew up not far from my home. The blast killed five people and destroyed numerous cars and houses. The area looked like a B-29 had scored a direct hit. There were no calls to stop using gasoline - only for better safety practices. Businesspeople and government officials know that risk has to be managed in order to gain benefits society needs and desires. So the question is not, "is there a risk?" but "can it be managed acceptably?"

What name should we give to people who demonize automobiles because they are too "risky"? Insensitive louts (like me) would call them "morons" because their position is ignorant. The same label fits groups that will not allow nuclear power plants to be built, under any circumstances. France gets nearly 80% of its electrical power from nuclear-powered generating plants. I don't often say we can learn from the French, but here's a notable exception. If they can use nuclear, why can't we? Could they be smarter than we are? (I withdraw the question.)

Miss Fay asks about hydro-electric power. Of course, it's very important. But most of the suitable natural sites in the USA (e.g., Niagara Falls) have long since been harnessed. Man-made hydro-sites, like Hoover Dam, have also been built at huge expense and effort. And therein lies the problem. A dam entails immense cost, plus space for a vast lake to furnish the water-flow needed to run the generators. Lake Mead, created by the construction of Hoover Dam, covers 44,500 sqmi. (30 times the size of Rhode Island) and extends 110 miles behind the dam.

Obviously, only limited numbers of such facilities can be built. They are immensely controversial and disruptive. One doubts that the legal clearances to build Hoover Dam could be obtained today. It's easy to talk about building new dams, but making it happen in today's litigious climate is next to impossible.

Miss Fay didn't mention windmills or solar power, so I'll mention them for her. These are much touted today as "alternatives" to oil. But they can't be reliable, uninterrupted sources of power because the wind doesn't always blow and the sun shines only in daytime, provided it's not cloudy. Furthermore, both of these require large areas of land (or water) for their equipment. That famous environmental warrior, Senator Edward Kennedy, fought hard against a project that would have installed dozens of windmill towers in Nantucket Sound, within sight of his family's ocean-front property on Martha's Vinyard. We chuckle at the irony, but I don't blame him. If I owned such a property, I wouldn't want windmills off the larboard bow, either.

Electricity production from solar panels is also unlikely ever to be more than a supplement to conventional power generation, unless a miracle happens to the technology. People who pose it as an "alternative" to oil are...well, let's just say that their technical understanding is "limited". (The official technical assessment is "no way, Jose.")

I cannot answer Miss Fay's complaints about high oil prices and profits, or address her suspicion that a diabolical conspiracy is at work there. Oil futures are traded on international markets. I agree that the price is absurdly high. Even oil sheiks from the Middle East agree that oil should be no higher than $80 a barrel. (It is currently trading over $140.)

In fact, the oil-futures market is on a speculative "bubble", just as housing was a couple of years ago. Traders in oil-futures are betting that nothing will change and oil will just keep getting scarcer and more expensive. That bubble is bound to burst, just as the housing bubble did. When it pops, oil prices will crash, ruining imprudent speculators and pension fund managers who were gambling that oil would go up in price indefinitely. (Nothing ever does.)

The crash will happen, provided our own Congress ends its moronic (there I go again) opposition to drilling for the oil we know we have. The only question is when that opposition will end. My prediction is that it will magically evaporate right after Inauguration Day, 2009, should our new President be named Obama. Senators dug in against it now will step out boldly and say they always favored more drilling. Today (July 14), Mr. Bush has signed an Executive Order permitting offshore drilling, but Congress must still act to reverse its own previous prohibitions on such drilling. Only pressure from voters can move Congress forward on this.

With respect to ANWR and off-shore drilling, and oil-shale deposits, Miss Fay argues that it will be 5 to 10 years before any new oil is brought out. (An objection first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I believe.) The inference we are supposed to draw is that unless something can produce instant results, we shouldn't bother with it. This would have ruled out most technological achievements in history, not to mention the pyramids, the Bible, the Panama Canal, the U. S. Constitution, and a long list of other pretty valuable things. It is an exceptionally silly objection.

In reality, all technologies posed as alternatives to oil - e.g., cars that run on salad oil, power from the ocean tides, solar furnaces, cosmic rays, etc. - would take decades to develop, assuming they are possible at all. Nothing this complex will be accomplished overnight. A hydrogen-powered car (c.f., Miss Fay's #2) has already been developed by Mercedes-Benz. The problem, of course, is that you don't find compressed hydrogen filling stations on the Turnpike or the interstate. The fuel is the problem, not the car. Again, development of a mature technology will take some time.

What is clear - or should be - is that we should be enabling the oil industry to retrieve all the oil it can. The governor and legislature of my own state of Virginia have just come out solidly against drilling for oil off Virginia's coasts. With gas hitting $4.50 a gallon, Governor Kaine also wants to raise gasoline taxes. (Just to show that we have our share of morons, too.)

While the state of Florida has made off-shore drilling verboten, the Chinese are teaming with Cuba to drill midway between Florida and Cuba. They are going ahead now. We remain environmentally righteous, while they get the oil. (OK, I won't use the M-word again. Come up with your own term to describe how retarded this makes us look.)

As Miss Fay notes (in her #2), I did say that oil-bearing shale "might" contain 800 billion barrels of oil. She is right - it also "might not". In fact, it might be much more, not less. Some experts believe the shale holds as much as 2 trillion barrels of retrievable oil. But it might as well be nothing if we lack the sense to retrieve it.

Wild talk about "changing" our entire way of life to non-automotive or non-oil-overnight, presumably - is delusional. This would be a traumatic sea-change in our national life that can happen only over decades. Proposing that we stop using the wheel makes as much sense.

I loved Miss Fay's hyperbole about my gas-guzzling Hummer. Who am I, indeed, to drive such a behemoth while "po' folks" like her can't afford gas? I admit that I have always wanted to try one of those war-wagons. (Did you know that they come with optional armor and top-mounted 50-calibre machine guns? Remote fire-control, too...)

Actually - to answer one of Miss Fay's questions - I did learn something from the gas shortages of the 1970s, when we sat in gas lines on odd- or even-numbered days. I learned to drive cars that aren't the size of a Sherman Tank. Cars then weighed nearly 5000 pounds; they got about 8 miles per gallon. I bought my first Divine Wind Motors subcompact in 1977. My current vehicles get 30 mpg. (I have never developed a taste for vans or SUVs - a fact for which I daily give thanks.) I do apologize (tongue in cheek) for having a car at all. I realize that it's outrageously elitist. In Al Gore's Utopia, that will be corrected. Most of us will be pedaling rickshaws.

Miss Fay's gratuitous comments about my vehicle (as she thought) typify the attitudes of many during this era of expensive gas. My political views made her automatically assume that I was part of the problem. She wrongly imagined I must be driving one of those monstro-vehicles that are using up all the gas. This is worthy of a few parting shots.

As I whiz around in my little German sports job, I don't resent people who drive gas-hogs like the Ford Expedition, the Hummer or the GMC Suburban (to mention only a few). Their money is as good as mine, and if they want to spend it filling humungous gas tanks, that's their choice. God bless them - the gas stations certainly do. It would be a different matter if they were getting gas at a discount because they use so much - or if someone decided I should be denied fuel because my car carries only two people. As long as the market is allowed to work honestly, I don't care who drives which car. That's the "free" part of free markets.

On the other hand, I do hope drivers of huge vehicles will at least have the wit to vote against politicians who want to keep prices high by not tapping our own oil reserves. Mr. Obama is one of those guys! - which was my point in the previous article. If you're steamed about gas prices, and you plan to vote for Barak Obama because he says he'll do something to bring those prices down...well, there's that word again. (Begins with M...)

Good luck to Miss Fay and others like her. If they elect Mr. Obama president, luck is what they'll need. Sometimes being a writer is a little frustrating. Therein (if in naught else) I am one with Shakespeare: "Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention."

Just watch where you toss that match...