Monday, September 08, 2003

Refined Nonsense

We've had two really interesting stories in Arizona this past week--the proposal to put an oil refinery in the middle of the desert south of Phoenix, and Rep. J.D. Hayworth's bariatric surgery. Ol' J.D. holds a press conference, discusses exactly how the surgeons rearranged his innards, and how many of the ol' avoirdupois the big guy is now walking around without--you know, the whole nine-yards-and-show-the-surgical-scars deal. Some reporter then has the temerity to ask if the Congressman's federal health insurance paid for the surgery, and J.D. goes all, "Well, there has to be a zone of privacy for public figures blah blah blah." Oh, I see; actual surgery, now that's public. Health care finance and money--ye gods, that's personal.

Anyway, back to the refinery. Not only is this the same location in Mobile, AZ that was supposed to be the site of the late and unlamented ENSCO incinerator (isn't some level of government still paying off bonds related to that failed project?), but given that there really isn't very much out there, it's pretty remarkable that the refinery proponents managed to come up with a site next to an elementary school. Not an easy thing to do, but they did it.

And I couldn't figure out an entire column about the downsized Hayworth, but still managed to sneak in a reference into a column about the refinery. Not an easy thing to do, either.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 7, 2003

Hey, that whole Iraq business has worked so well, perhaps we should listen to the same folks who now want to build an oil refinery here in Arizona. We’ll topple a statue, cut a ribbon, and I’m sure it’ll all go just fine.

Am I missing something here? How does putting a refinery in the desert south of Phoenix help us avoid depending on pipelines, when there’s no oil in Arizona and any refinery would have to ship oil here -- by pipeline? Does it really matter whether the pipe carries crude oil, aviation fuel, or gasoline if there’s only so much existing (and increasingly aging) pipeline capacity?

Never mind the environmental arguments, which are pretty compelling. Refineries use lots of water, of which there isn’t much in Mobile, and expel tons of air pollutants, the same hydrocarbon emissions that we need to reduce, not expand, if we don’t want tourists to call winter in the Valley of the Sun the “brown cloud season.”

Focus instead on the economic facts. Maybe there’s a reason no private business has built an entirely new refinery in this country for 30 years, even in places with easy access to crude oil, water, skilled labor, and refined product shipment pipelines -- none of which Arizona has. (Don’t forget about better access to capital, too.)

And the refinery would be the easy part. The real fun would come in building the new pipeline to carry crude oil to the new refinery -- from where, exactly? Our “seaport,” San Luis? From Mexico somehow? That’s the real, pardon the expression, pipe dream, that somehow we’d be able to run a new pipeline hundreds of miles through national parks, Indian reservations, and the Barry Goldwater bombing range (“And Red Leader, try not to hit the oil pipeline this time, OK?”)

There’s a reason the private sector isn’t jumping at the chance to start turning dirt on this project. It’s because it’s a colossally stupid idea. If some bozo with billions wants to try, go ahead, but let him do it on his own money and let’s keep our tax dollars out of it. No government subsidies, OK? It’s a refinery, not a Scottsdale Wal-Mart -- or Rep. J.D. Hayworth’s stomach-stapling surgery.

The usual response by proponents to these kinds of overwhelming technical problems is to say, “Well, they said we couldn’t put a man on the moon.” (Never mind that there really aren’t that many people still alive who possibly could have said it was impossible to put a man on the moon.) But no astronauts are lining up to invest their own money into this scheme. What if the refinery works exactly as well as the moon landings -- for a grand total of three years, and then that’s it?

Sure, it would be nice to have a spanking new, pollution-sensitive, absolutely fabulous oil refinery in the state. Heck, it would be nice to build a working cold-fusion reactor, too. But don’t bet on either happening.

The truly bizarre part is that the people pushing the refinery are largely the same crew who also are pushing electricity deregulation, which is based on creating huge regional markets for power, generated far away and then transmitted long distances to actual consumers. The idea that our electricity increasingly comes from longer distances through aging and inefficient transmission systems is perfectly acceptable. But suddenly this exact same model makes no sense for gasoline, which unlike electricity can be stored for days or weeks until needed.

At the Olympics, is there a gold medal in dumb? We’ve got a contender, folks.

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