Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Conjunction Revisited

I been thinking long and hard about my Conjunction setting, RocketFans, and all of the well thought out comments about the plausibility of using Pertoleum as a species of MacGuffinite.  Many of these were in the form of comment discussions with the aforementioned Robert Davidoff, who helps keeps head-in-the-clouds types like me honest.

And I cannot argure his cogent points.  It does take more energy to move natural gas from Titan to Terra than you can get burning the natural gas.  It will always be cheaper to mine marginal sources on Terra than go fetch it from the ass-end of the Solar System.  All of this is true, and in a world where things like physics, hard reality, and logical allocation of resources are the guiding forces, we would never import oil for Titan.

...But.  We don't live in a world like that, do we?

I bring this up because I realized that there is a hidden cost to continually extracting oil from Terra that is so steep, it would in fact be cheaper to improt the stuff from the vicinity of Saturn.  I say "hidden" cost, but this cost is widely advertized and extensively debated in the news, private homes, schools, and of course all over the internet.  This "hidden" cost is not only measured in ridiculous amounts of money, it is also measured in a tragic human cost.  The cost includes tens of thousands of lives every year, as well as millions of families losing their homes, livleyhoods, and health.  Yet despite this cost, we continue to mine oil on Terra with a fanatic vigor and show no signs of stopping.

I'm talking about war, of course.

Just to put it in perspective, the total profits of the American oil industry in the last ten years is a bit less than 930 billion.  It sounds like a lot, I know, but the Iraq War, which we fought for about the same amount of time and was motovated far more by oil politics than anyone in Washington wants to admit, has cost to date 1.7 trillion dollars, or not quite twice as much as the oil profits for the same period.  Of course, the oil profits belong to the big five US oil companies, and the cost of the war is the responsibility of the American taxpayers...

Anyway, the cost is actually much worse than it appears. Because we're still paying for that war - veteran's benefits, despite being way, way less than our servicemen and women need or deserve, will end up costing over the next three decades (the estimated lifespan of the veterans of the Iraq War) an additional 6 trillion dollars, or about two hundred billion a year.  Verses 93 billion a year in oil profits.

This is bullshit.

Sorry, but I really think it is.  This is the hidden cost of our oil, more hidden than the tax at the pump already included, that most of us aren't in the habit of counting as the price of doing business in the petroleum-fueled industrial world.  If I may, I strongly sugesst that you we start getting used to it, because as Earth's petroleum reserves get lower, our likelyhood of going to war over what remains will only increase.

I see a youngster standing in the back of the audience shouting something about moving our industry off of petroleum as a cheaper alternative to going to war or going to Saturn.  Both of these points are true - and both are also very, very false.  At face value and on paper, it would be cheaper to move our entire industrial infrastructure to something other than Big Oil, and then be sitting pretty while the rest of the world fights over the dregs of crude left in the sand.  But it doesn't work out that way in practice.  For one thing, no civilization has successfully survived the transition from one form on energy to another.   For another thing, we wouldn't just have to get the government and practically every industry in the world to agree to the cost of such a transition, we would still have to pay for the energy we're using now and there's mounting evidence that we don't have enough resources to do both anymore.

Weather the above is true or not, it's plausible.  And that's all I need.

So let's say we're stuck with oil and the growing need to fight for it.  That is, of course if you can fight for it, because not every nation has the massive military-industrial complex America does.  China does, and while they burn enough coal to make 19th century England look like a wet firecracker, they too are fighting for the same oil the US is.  Right now, they're fighting with money and economics.  If something doesn't change fundementally and radically, it is only a matter of time before they fight with their huge-ass Air Force and all of those ASATS and cruise missiles they've been building.

Again, plausible.

Now, suppose you're a nation, or group of nations, that are advanced industrialy but lack the military power to take on the Big Two for the world's dwindling oil supply.  I can think of three off the top of my head - The UK, France, and Japan - and Germany, so four.  Now, a couple of these are nuclear powers.  Two have top-notch manufacturing bases, and all of them have excellent aerospace firms.  I bring those points up because there is a spacecraft design, available since the sixties, that can use that nuclear arsenal and aerospace tech to get to Saturn with a five- to seven-thosand ton payload:  The Orion (old boom bloom) Nuclear Pusle Battleship.

Unlike the spacecraft that so terrified Kennedy back in the day, this "battle ship" is unarmed.  what it carries are the makings of Titan's first space station, laser launch facility, oil refinery, and plastics plant.  Afterall, Saturn was the destination of the first big Orion mission proposal.  But our Orion is not there for flags and footprints - though it may very well plant a flag, because while the Outer Space Treaty may forbid political claims on exteraterrestrial territory, unless some else builds a freaking Orion, there's precious little they do about it.

In space, anyway.  After all, just becuase a handful of nations in Europe and Asia have oil fields around Saturn doesn't mean they can keep the oil, any more than the handful of Middle Eastern countries with oil fields in their own territory can keep it. But I don't expect this group of nations that first exploit Titan to keep it - I expect the UN to end up with it, and handle portioning out the oil in the name of Keeping the Peace.

In other words, the Conjunction Universe.

How much would it cost?  Billions.  Tens of billions.  And years of R&D.  And probably hundreds of lives.  In other words, easily a thousand times cheaper than oil from Earth is, when you factor in all the costs.


  1. There's an additional, parallel angle we could take. Another "hidden" cost is environmental, not to mention social-justicial: the physical damage wrought by late-stage oil extraction. Currently no one has to pay for this unless they are successfully sued.

    Conceivably, though I have no way to work out the math, our species might get serious about planetary and human degradation and put a stop to it or put a very high cost on it by fiat. Oil extraction would then stop or slow---or spark wars.

    Furthermore, should we realize that we are threatening ourselves with extinction, we might move power generation offplanet as well as extraction of fuels. No matter how expensive it might be to mine oil on Titan, it will be *many* times more expensive to find another planet to live on.

  2. Even if the Titan petroleum was free, people would still bitch that burning it contributes to global warming. Wouldn't solar power microwave-beamed from space be at least as cost-effective? Especially if it was 99% constructed from lunar/asteroid material by robots that could be monitored in near-real-time from Earth?

  3. Reminds me of the Black Desert.

    America: "You know what will really give us a massive advantage in space? If we, who are still the dominant superpower and have tons of capital, use that capital to build a space elevator and therefore control the cheapest means to orbit in the world!"

    Brazil: *whistles innocently*

    1. In the upcoming reboot of The Black Desert the Conjuction War will replace the Great Space War and be a playable era. So...yeah. Brazil will probably still perfect the IPV, and the Space Elevators will probably still be strategic targets.

  4. Apart from power-plants, what about the other uses of petroleum?
    High-efficiency fuel for internal combustion engine is part of it - even if it costs more energy to bring it to Earth than it can produce, it's energy transportation and not energy source (a bit like anti-matter).
    Maybe the demand for plastics and other hydrocarbon-based materials explode. Local industries could refine hydrocarbons and send the products to Earth in bulk. In fact, maybe the oxygen-free atmosphere, lower gravity and/or extreme cold are advantages for some industrial processes.

    How would you make bringing it back as cheap as possible?
    Building a space elevator on Titan; gravity is lower, but the atmosphere is dense and it's the freaking Outer system. What other means would be cost-effective?
    Once out of Titan's atmosphere, maybe you could use Saturn's magnetic field. Either to boost, or to slow down and fall toward Saturn to use the Oberth effect for what it's worth.
    Once out of Saturn's influence, how effective would a solar sail be to slow your orbital speed down?
    Once approaching Earth, a solar sail can help you slow down - by how much? And once there, how much can you reasonably aerobrake/aerocapture an inert bulk material cargo?

    About a nuclear pulse spaceship.
    It would be hard for Japan to go past their nuclear bomb taboo, even with the best PR to explain that those pulse units are nuclear devices, not bombs (not intended for military use).
    Germany has a strong anti-nuclear lobby - to the point that in the name of ecology, they close nuclear powerplants down, even as it meant opening coal powerplants (the most horridly polluting ones ever).
    However, both may be more inclined to work on it as long as it is out of their territory.
    France also has a strong and equally irrational anti-nuclear lobby, but it also has a strong nuclear lobby, and is taking its military nuclear capabilities seriously (which includes continuous research). However, as a nation it is also slowly but surely breaking down, so not in the best position to pour many billions into such project in the midst of budget cuts and incompetently distributed funds - though this could change.
    I would expect UK to be in a more or less similar position.

    And a potential game-changer is antimatter research: it should open antimatter-triggered fusion explosions in the coming decades. Apart from unimportant, harmless proliferation concerns (radioisotope-free pocket nukes! No more pesky, year-long centrifuges! No need for massive nuclear tests!), it would enable nuclear pulse propulsion to be fallout-free, removing a big part of its unpopularity among the public (not the same as radiation-free, but why tell them?)

    1. Pertoleum is the most widely used substance in human history; the uses for it are staggaring. In addition to cude shipments (which will become less important as time marches on) there will be shipments of plastics, fabrics, chemicals, pharmesuticals - anything you can make on site and save the mass penalty on shipping.

      I chose Britian and France specifically for the Orion idea for two reasons: One, they are both permanent members of the UN security council. Two, neither has had a change of government post WWII. China and Russia are technically not the same countries they were when first joining the Security Council, and after the aforementioned Sino-American war, neither will the US. In Conjunction/Black Desert history, this will be used as a pretext to expell all three of the former super powers from the Security Council and replace them with new nations.

    2. Environmentally, of course, the Orion drive is HORRIBLE. Some of the computations they made when they started considering the effects the drive would have on fallout said that every particle of bomb would make its way back to the Earth until they were halfway to Mars.

      NASA is still hanging onto the theory ('External Plasma Pulse Propulsion') pretty much in case we need to haul a whole bunch of nukes up to destroy or redirect an asteroid....that'd be the Godzilla threshold for the Orion drive in any current reasonably feasible form.

    3. I've been doing some research on old Boom Boom, and there are ways to reduce the radioactive debris and fallout.
      Somewhat counter-intuitively, the LARGER the pulse unit, the LESS radioactive debris it creates. The larger Orions, like the 10 kton versions mentioned above, have pulse units that approach 100% fission. As for the outright radiation the booms create, coating both the launch pad and the pusher plate on the spacecraft with graphite will eliminate the fallout from an Orion launch.
      That being said, the public places the blame for the loss of the Greenland/Antartic ice shelfs to Orion launches. It was probably more the continual use of fossile fuels, but what are you gonna do?

  5. Even if we reduce oil and coal usage, switch away from oil-byproducts and so on, we are still dependent on Phosphorus.

    I'm aware oil is more exciting, but is phosphorus operations going to be setup in this setting before the oil operations?

    Or will they be setup at the same time?


Questions, comments, criticisms? All non-Trolls welcome!