Biofuels as Alternative Fuel Sources

In the previous post I suggested that municipal refuse could be converted to liquid fuels of similar nature to modern hydrocarbon fuels from oil. There are some who think transport can be readily electrified, but three other considerations suggest not. The first is that, as noted by Physics World, a publication by the Institute of Physics, there is a very good chance that a car sold today will still be being used twenty years out. The second is that electric vehicles also have considerable greenhouse emissions. The actual running of the car is free of emissions, but you still have to make the car, which has significant emissions and may exceed that of the standard car; you have to generate the electricity, and the majority of the world’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, and much from coal; and finally you have to make the batteries, and this is also a serious emitter. There are also parts of the vehicle fleet that will not easily electrify, such as the big road trailers that go into remote Australia, heavy construction equipment, simply because the extra mass to store the batteries would be horrendous, and recharge is not simple in remote places. Shipping will continue to use oil, as will aircraft, and as noted in a previous post, so will much of the vehicle fleet because it is not possible to make satisfactory batteries for replacement vehicles because with current technology there is insufficient cobalt. So what else can replace fossil fuel?

One such possibility is biofuels. The case for biofuels is that in principle their combustion is carbon neutral: their carbon may return to the air, but it came from the air. The energy source is essentially solar, and that is not going to run out soon. The problem then is that biomass is a strange mix of different chemicals. Worse, we eat biomass, and we must not remove our food supply.

The first problem that gives biofuels a bad name is the urge to take the low hanging fruit, especially for tax benefits. Palm oil for biodiesel has made a terrible mess of the Indonesian rain forests, and for what benefit (apart from clipping the tax ticket?) Corn for ethanol similarly makes little sense exceptfor the case where the corn would otherwise go to waste. The problem in part is that corn also utilises so little of the sunlight; most of the plant is simply wasted, and often burned. Seed oils do make sense for specialist uses, such as drying oils in paint, or in cosmetics, or as a feedstock to make other specialist chemicals, but something like “biodiesel” from palm oil makes the overall situation worse, not better. It will never replace the carbon fixed in the rain forest.

Forestry is another interesting case. We are much better off to use the logs for timber in construction: it is worth more, and at the same time it fixes carbon in the buildings. However, if you have ever seen forestry, you will know there is an awful lot of biomass just left to rot: the branches, twigs, stumps, roots, leaves/needles, etc. That is essentially free to use. There are big problems in that it packs extremely badly, so transport costs for any distance are too great.

From a technical point of view, the processes to use woody biomass would come down to the same ones for municipal wastes as noted in the previous post, except that gasification is unlikely to be suitable. A significant plant was put up in the US to gasify biomass and use the gas for a modified Fischer-Tropsch process, but it failed. There were probably several reasons for this, but one is immediately obvious: if we rely on market forces we cannot compete with oil. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the oil is “free” originally, and since liquids can be pumped, it is easily handled, while the second is there is a huge infrastructure to process oil. The cost per unit mass of product becomes lower, usually the ratio of the throughput rates to the power of 0.6. The reason for this is simple. Costs of processing plant are proportional (all other things being equal) to the area of the container, which is proportional to r squared, while the production rate is proportional to volume, which is proportional to rcubed. The huge oil processing plants are extremely efficient, and no much smaller biomass processing unit can have any hope of matching it. The reason for the 0.6 as opposed to 0.66666 is that there are also some extra savings. Control equipment, gauges, etc tend to cost much the same because they are the same, and pumps, etc, tend to be excessively costly when small. The six-tenths rule is, of course, only a rough approximation, but it is a guide.

My approach to this, when I started, was to consider biomass hydrothermal liquefaction. The concept here was that if we merely heated the biomass up with water and simple catalysts under pressure to approaching the critical point, we could end up with liquids. These would have to be refined, but that could be done in a large central plant, while the initial processing could be done in smaller units that could be, with effort, portable. One of the surprises from this was that a certain fraction was already effectively a very high-grade fuel, at least for petrol craft or jet engines without further refining. Exactly what you got depended on catalysts, and a case could also be made to add certain other chemicals to enhance certain products. A lot more work would be needed to get such technology operational, but needing more work is not a reason to discard the concept if saving the world is at stake.

So why did I stop doing this work? Basically, because I felt the desire to change my working environment, and because the funding for this work was drying up. Regarding my working environment, there is a funny story there – well, sort of funny, but it did not feel that way then. The journal Naturedid a quick survey of science in New Zealand. I worked in a Government laboratory, and I had the rather dubious honour of having Head Office describe me in Natureas “an eccentric”. Why? Because I was trying to promote an industry based on a by-product of a synthetic fuels plant constructed at Motunui that would make a key starting material for high-temperature plastics. I suppose some of my antics were unusual, for example there was a program on national television of the dangers of flammable foam plastics, so I went there and pointed out they did not haveto be flammable. I had a piece of foam I had made in the lab that afternoon in the palm of my hand and I fired a gas torch at it so the foam was in my hand, yet yellow-hot on the outside. I held it there for quite some time, until everyone got bored. Anyway, when your employer decides you are eccentric, it felt like time to quit and start up by myself. There were two consequences of this. Before I left, the technical staff made me a brass “eggcup” with a large glass egg in it. One of my prized possessions. The second was I got a letter of apology from Head Office, in which it was explained they did not mean I was eccentric, but rather my ideas were. Not a great improvement, as seen by me. I suppose there was a further example of eccentric behaviour. The laboratory was set up with the purpose of promoting the New Zealand economy by finding new industrial opportunities. I suppose it was somewhat eccentric to actually be following “the Prime Directive”.

Advertisements

Alternative​ Sources for Fuel: Rubbish

As most people have noticed, there is finally some awakening relating to climate change and the need to switch from fossil fuels, not that politicians are exactly accepting such trends, and indeed they seem to have heads firmly buried in the sand. The difficulty is there are no easy solutions, and as I remarked in a previous post, we need multiple solutions.

So what to do? I got into the matter after the first “energy crisis” in the 1970s. I worked for the New Zealand national chemistry laboratory, and I was given the task of looking at biofuels. My first consideration was that because biomass varies so much, oil would always be cheaper than anything else, and the problem was ultimately so big, one needed to start by solving two problems. My concept was that a good place to start was with municipal rubbish: they pay you to take it away, and they pay a lot. Which leads to the question, how can you handle rubbish and get something back from it? The following is restricted to municipal rubbish. Commercial waste is different because it is usually one rather awkward thing that has specific disposal issues. For example, demolition waste that is basically concrete rubble is useless for recovering energy.

The simplest way is to burn it. You can take it as is, burn it, use the heat in part to recover electricity, and dump the resultant ash, which will include metal oxides, and maybe even metals. The drawback is you should take the glass out first because it can make a slag that blocks air inlets and messes with the combustion. If you are going to do that, you might as well take out the cans as well because they can be recycled. The other drawback is the problem of noxious fumes, etc. These can be caught, or the generators can be separated out first. There are a number of such plants operating throughout the world so they work, and could be considered a base case. There have also been quite satisfactory means of separating the components of municipal refuse, and there is plenty of operational experience, so having to separate is not a big issue. Citizens can also separate, although their accuracy and cooperativeness is an issue.

There are three other technologies that have similarities, in that they basically involve pyrolysis. Simple pyrolysis of waste gives an awful mix, although pyrolysis of waste plastics is a potential source of fuel. Polystyrene gives styrene, which if hydrogenated gives ethylbenzene, a very high-octane petrol. Pyrolysis of polyethylene gives a very good diesel, but pvc and polyurethanes give noxious fumes. Pyrolysis always leaves carbon, which can either be burned or buried to fix carbon. (The charcoal generator is a sort of wood pyrolysis system.)

The next step up is the gasifier. In this, the pyrolysis is carried out by extreme heat, usually generated by burning some of it in air, or oxygen. The most spectacular option I ever saw was the “Purox” system that used oxygen to maintain the heat by burning the char that got to the bottom. It took everything and ended up with a slag that could be used as road fill. I went to see the plant, but it was down for maintenance. I was a little suspicious at the time because nobody was working on it, which is not what you expect for maintenance. Its product was supposed to be synthesis gas. Other plants tended to use air to burn waste to provide the heat, but the problem with this is that the produced gas is full of nitrogen, which means it is a low-quality gas.

The route that took my interest was high-pressure liquefaction, using hydrogen to upgrade the product. I saw a small bench-top unit working, and the product looked impressive. It was supposed to be upgraded to a 35 t/d pilot plant, to take up all of a small city’s rubbish, but the company decided not to proceed, largely because suddenly OPEC lost its cohesion and the price of oil dropped like a stone. Which is why biofuels will never stand up in their own right: it is always cheaper to pump oil from the ground than make it, and it is always cheaper to refine it in a large refinery than in a small-scale plant. This may seem to have engineering difficulties, but this process is essentially the same as the Bergius process that helped keep the German synthetic fuels going in WW II. The process works.

So where does that leave us? I still think municipal waste is a good way to start an attack on climate change, except what some places seem to be doing is shipping their wastes to dump somewhere else, like Africa. The point is, it is possible to make hydrocarbon fuels, and the vehicles that are being sold now will need to be fuelled for a number of years. The current feedstock prices for a Municipal Waste processing plant is about MINUS $100/t. Coupled with a tax on oil, that could lead to money being made. The technologies are there on the bench scale, we need more non-fossil fuel, and we badly need to get rid of rubbish. So why don’t we do something? Because our neo-liberal economics says, let the market decide. But the market cannot recognise long-term options. That is our problem with climate change. The market sets prices, but that is ALL it does, and it does not care if civilization eradicates itself in five years time. The market is an economic form of evolution, and evolution leads to massive extinction events, when life forms are unsuitable for changing situations. The dinosaurs were just too big to support themselves when food supplies became too difficult to obtain by a rather abrupt climate change. Our coming climate change won’t be as abrupt nor as devastating, but it will not be pleasant either. And it won’t be avoided by the market because the market, through the fact that fossil fuels are the cheapest, is the CAUSE of what is coming. But that needs its own post.

Chaos in the Gulf?

What is going on in the Gulf of Oman? Four tankers off the UAE port of Fujairah had been struck on May 12, and two further offshore on June 13.  The most obvious consequence is that the world’s oil supplies are going to be threatened because already the owners of tankers are starting to stop sending them to the Gulf until this situation resolves itself. As of the time of writing, it is unclear who is responsible, although the US has immediately blamed Iran. Iran has previously threatened to close the gulf, and it is easy to jump to the conclusion they are doing it, but the fact is the latest happened at the same time as Japan and Germany are working to ease tensions and to ease sanctions. There was a visit from the Prime Minister of Japan to Tehran so surely that would be a stupid time to do that, especially to Japanese ships. It would be more likely that someone would want to prevent the Japanese from getting friendly with Iran.

The cause of the explosions is believed to be limpet mines. We “know” that because after the explosions, the US released a video showing the Iranian navy sent a boat to rescue sailors on the Japanese ship, and they disabled and removed an unexploded limpet mine. This prodded the US to accuse them of having put it there. There is the question as to why they got there so quickly, but one reasonable answer is the Gulf of Oman is rather narrow, they regularly patrol, and if Iran were innocent and the naval boat heard an explosion and saw smoke coming from a ship, it would be natural for it to go and assist since it could be by far the closest possible source of help.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, immediately blamed Iran, stating his blame was “based on intelligence” and they have the ability. He claimed nobody else had the ability, then he stated that the US will defend its interests, stand by its partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability. He offered no evidence for his claim and took zero questions.

An immediate problem here is that Pompeo has previously told blatant lies about Iran, and at an audience at Texas A&M University he seemed to boast that when he was Director of the CIA, “We lied, we cheated, we stole.” In short, he is not a man to be taken at face value, and worse, the US has a history of using lies and false flags to justify military intervention. You may recall the “firm intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction”. John Bolton is also known to be a liar when necessary to achieve his goals, he was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, and he has made statements to the effect that there should be military action against Iran. Back to Pompeo, he was reported here as stating, in response to a question of why Iran would do it, that if you keep poking someone in the eye with a stick, you have to expect a response. That does not prove that Iran did this, but it does strongly suggest that the US has a strongly malevolent policy towards Iran. It also makes a lie of Pompeo’s claim that the attack was unprovoked. If Iran did do it, the sanctions applied to Iran, and Pompeo’s “poking its eyes with a stick” could be regarded as acts of war, and whatever else, they would not be unprovoked.

The next question is how were these mines attached? There would seem to be only two methods: from a boat at sea, or in a harbour. A ship at sea, if there is any sort of watch, would see the perpetrators. There appear to be no reports about this. These were limpet mines, which would be difficult to attach to a moving ship anyway, so perhaps they were attached while in harbour. It should be noted the mines were attached above the waterline. The US video that has shown the Iranians removing an unexploded mine (assuming that was what it was) has the Iranians standing on the deck of a patrol boat to reach it. This would be difficult to attach at sea. Images of the other ship show corresponding holes well above the waterline.

Perhaps we should look at cui bono– who benefits? The Japanese Prime Minister was in Tehran attempting to negotiate a de-escalation of US-Iran tension, and Trump had given his blessing to it. Why then attack a Japanese ship? Why rescue the crew and remove the limpet mine? All this at a time when Iran was busy negotiating with Europe. Why attach explosives so high above the waterline? The only reason for doing that is that you do not wish to sink the ship. Why not? Presumably because you do not want any accidental evidence that it was you who did it to blame you for the damage. So who wants to merely be a nuisance and strictly limit any damage?

There are other players. The region is torn with the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam. Iran is helping Shias and has fought Sunni extremists, including ISIS, in Iraq and Syria, and it supports the Houthis in Yemen, who are being bombed by the Saudis on a regular basis. Against Iran is a group of countries including the Sunni states, probably the Sunnis in Iraq, al Qaeda and its offshoots, and, for totally different reasons, Israel and the US. The problem for the Sunni states such as the Saudis is that while they have a lot of money and buy a lot of armaments, and are happy enough to bomb the defenceless, they are not soldiers and do not want to fight on the ground. Accordingly, they might well want to goad the US into going to war with Iran.

So who did it? I do not know, but common sense suggests to me one more likely suspect would be some Sunni fringe group, such as al Qaeda, or one of its many offshoots, out for revenge against Iran. They cannot get it themselves directly, but they would have their revenge if the US went to war against Iran. There is reasonable evidence consistent with it having done that in Syria with the so-called chemical weapon attacks. The area is a powder keg.  Against that, why protect the ship against sinking? If ships sank, the US would be more likely to go to war. However, despite what some in the US may have us believe, I believe it really does not want to get into a war with Iran. While Iraq had an ideal landscape for mechanised war, Iran does not, and unlike the Iraqis, the Iranians have had some battle experience. A war there would be much worse for America than Afghanistan was, and that was not exactly good.

Space Mining

Most readers will have heard that there are a number of proposals to go mine asteroids, or maybe Mars. The implication is that Earth will become short of resources, so we can mine things in space. However, if we mine there for the benefit here, how would we get such resources here, and in what form. If the resources are refined elsewhere, then there is the “simple” cost of getting them here. If we bring them down in a shuttle, we have to get the shuttle back up there, and the cost is huge. If on the other hand, we drop them (and gravity is cheap) we have to stop whatever we send from burning up in the atmosphere, so to control the system we have to build some sort of spacecraft out there to bring them down. Overall, this is unlikely to be profitable. On the other hand if we build structures in space, such as space stations, or on Mars for settlers, then obviously it is very much cheaper to use local resources, if we can refine them there.

So, what are the local resources? The answer is it depends on the history. All the solid elements are expelled in novae (light elements only) or supernovae (all). The very light elements lithium, beryllium and boron are rather rare because they tend to be destroyed in the star before the explosion. The elements vary in relative amounts made, and basically the heavier the element the less is made, and elements with an even number of protons are more common than elements with odd numbers. Iron, and to some extent nickel, are more common than those around them because the nuclei are particularly stable. The most common elements are magnesium, silicon and with iron about 10% less. Sulphur is about half as common, calcium and aluminium are about 6 – 8% as common as silicon, while the metals such as copper and zinc are about 100,000 times less common than aluminium. The message from all that is that unless there is some process that has sorted the various elements, an object in space is likely to have the composition of dust, which are mainly silicates, i.e. rock. There may well be metal sulphides as well, as there is a lot of sulphur there.

So what sorting could there be? The most obvious is that if the body formed close enough to the star during primary accretion, the heat in the accretion disk could be sufficient to melt the element, if it were there as an element. It appears that iron was, because we get iron meteorites and iron-cored meteorites. The accretion disk, of course, was primarily hydrogen, and at the melting point of iron, hydrogen will reduce iron oxides to iron, also making water. So we could expect asteroids to have iron cores? Well, we are sure most members of the asteroid belt do not, and the reason why not is presumably it did not get hot enough to melt iron where they formed. However, since the regolith (fine “soil”) on the Moon has iron dust in it, perhaps there was iron dust where the asteroids formed. However, the problem is what caused them to solidify. If they melted, steam would be created, and that would oxidise iron dust, so the iron then would be as an oxide, or a silicate.

The ores we have on Earth are there due to geochemical processing. For example, in the mantle, water forms a supercritical fluid that dissolves all sorts of things, including silica and gold. When this comes to the surface, it cools and deposits its solids, which is why gold is found in some quartz veins. The big iron oxide deposits we have were formed through carbon dioxide weathering iron-containing silicates (such as olivine and pyroxene) to make ferrous and magnesium solutions in the oceans. When oxygen came along, the ferrous precipitated to form goethite and haematite, which we now mine. All the ore deposits on Earth are there because of geochemical processing.

There will be limited such processing on Mars, and on the Moon. Thus on the Moon, as it cooled some materials crystallised out before others. The last to crystallise on the Moon was what we call KREEP, which stands for potassium, rare earths and phosphate, which is what it largely comprises. There is also anorthite, a calcium aluminosilicate on the Moon. As for Mars, it seems to be mainly basaltic, which means it is mainly iron magnesium silicate. The other elements will be there, of course, mixed up, but how do you get them out? Then there is the problem of chemical compatibility. Suppose you want rare earths? The rare earths are not that rare, actually, and are about as common as copper. But copper occurs in nice separate ores, at least on Earth, but rare earths have chemical properties somewhat similar to aluminium. For every rare earth atom, there are 100,000 aluminium atoms, all behaving similarly, although not exactly the same. So it is far from easy to separate them from the aluminium, then there is the problem of separating them from each other.

There is what I consider a lot of nonsense spoken about asteroids. Thus one was reported to be “mainly diamond”. On close questioning, it had an infrared signature typical of carbon. That would be typically amorphous graphitic carbon, and no, they did not know specifically it was diamond. Another proposal was to mine asteroids for iron. There may well be some with an iron core, and Vesta probably does have such a core, but most do not. I have heard some say there will be lots of platinum there. Define lots, because unless there has been some form of sorting, it will be there proportionately to its dust concentration, and while there is more than in most bits of basalt, there will still be very little. In my opinion, beware of investment opportunities to get rich quickly through space mining.

Book Discount

From February 14 – 21, (Seattle time) “Red Gold” will be discounted to 99c/99p. In the previous post, I gave a rather frivolous scam possibility related to space exploration. Try something a little more serious.

 

Mars is to be colonized. The hype is huge, the suckers will line up, and we will control the floats. There is money to be made, and the beauty is, nobody on Earth can check what is really going on on Mars.

Partly inspired by the 1988 crash, Red Gold shows the anatomy of one sort of fraud. Then there’s Mars, and where The Martian showed the science behind one person surviving for a modest period, Red Gold shows the science needed for many colonists to survive indefinitely. As a bonus there is an appendix that shows how the writing of this novel led to a novel explanation for the presence of Martian rivers.

If you liked The Martian where science allowed one person to survive then Red Gold is a thriller that has a touch of romance, a little economics and enough science to show how Mars might be colonised and the colonists survive indefinitely.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y

Science that does not make sense

Occasionally in science we see reports that do not make sense. The first to be mentioned here relates to Oumuamua, the “interstellar asteroid” mentioned in my previous post. In a paper (arXiv:1901.08704v3 [astro-ph.EP] 30 Jan 2019) Sekanina suggests the object was the debris of a dwarf interstellar comet that disintegrated before perihelion. One fact that Sekanina thought to be important was that no intrinsically faint long-period comet with a perihelion distance less than about 0.25 AU, which means it comes as close or closer than about two-thirds the distance from the sun as Mercury, have ever been observed after perihelion. The reason is that if the comet gets that close to the star, the heat just disintegrates it. Sekanina proposed that such an interstellar comet entered our system and disintegrated, leaving “a monstrous fluffy dust aggregate released in the recent explosive event, ‘Oumuamua should be of strongly irregular shape, tumbling, not outgassing, and subjected to effects of solar radiation pressure, consistent with observation.” Convinced? My problem: just because comets cannot survive close encounters with the sun does not mean a rock emerging from near the sun started as a comet. This is an unfortunately common logic problem. A statement of the form “if A, then B” simply means what it says. It does NOT mean, there is B therefor there must have been A.

At this point it is of interest to consider what comets are comprised of. The usual explanation is they are formed by ices and dust accreting. The comets are formed in the very outer solar system (e.g.the Oort cloud) by the ices sticking together. The ices include gases such as nitrogen and carbon monoxide, which are easily lost once they get hot. Here, “hot” is still very cold. When the gases volatalise, they tend to blow off a lot of dust, and that dust is what we see as the tail, which is directed away from the star due to radiation pressure and solar wind. The problem with Sekanina’s interpretation is, the ice holds everything together. The paper conceded this when it said it was a monstrous fluffy aggregate, but for me as the ice vaporizes, it will push the dust apart. Further, even going around a star, it will still happen progressively. The dust should spread out, as a comet tail. It did not for Oumuamua.

The second report was from Bonomo, in Nature Astronomy(doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0648-9). They claimed the Kepler 107 system provided evidence of giant collisions, as described in my previous post, and the sort of thing that might make an Oumuamua. What the paper claims is there are two planets with radii about fifty per cent bigger than Earth, and the outer planet is twice as dense (relative density ~ 12.6 g/cm^3) than the inner one (relative density ~ 5.3 g/cm^3). The authors argue that this provides evidence for a giant collision that would have stripped off much of the silicates from the outer planet, thus leaving more of an iron core. In this context, that is what some people think is the reason for Mercury having a density almost approaching that of Earth so the authors are simply tagging on to a common theme.

So why do I think this does not make sense? Basically because the relative density of iron is 7.87 g/cm^3. Even if this planet is pure iron, it could not have a density significantly greater than 7.8. (There is an increase in density due to compressibility under gravity, but iron is not particularly compressible so any gain will be small.) Even solid lead would not do. Silicates and gold would be OK, so maybe we should start a rumour? Raise money for an interstellar expedition to get rich quick (at least from the raised money!) However, from the point of view of the composition of dust that forms planets, that is impossible so maybe investors will see through this scam. Maybe.

So what do I think has happened? In two words, experimental error. The mass has to be determined by the orbital interactions with something else. What the Kepler mehod does is determine the orbital characteristics by measuring the periodic times, i.e.the times between various occultations. The size is measured from the width of the occultation signal and the slope of the signal at the beginning and the end. All of these have possible errors, and they include the size of the star and the assumed position re the equator of the star, so the question now is, how big are these errors? I am starting to suspect, very big.

This is of interest to me since I wrote an ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”. In this, I surveyed all the knowedge I could find up to the time of writing, and argued the standard theory was wrong. Why? It took several chapters to nail this, but the essence is that standard theory starts with a distribution of planetesimals and lets gravitational interactions lead to their joining up into planets. The basic problems I see with this are that collisions will lead to fragmentation, and the throwing into deep space, or the star, bits of planet. The second problem is nobody has any idea how such planetesimals form. I start by considering chemical interactions, and when I do that, after noting that what happens will depend on the temperatures around where it happens (what happens in chemistry is often highly temperature dependent) you get very selective zoes that differ from each other quite significantly. Our planets are in such zones (if you assume Jupiter formed at the “snow zone”) and have the required properties. Since I wrote that, I have been following the papers on the topic and nothing has been found that contradicts it, except, arguably things like the Kepler 107 “extremely dense planet”. I argue it is impossible, and therefore the results are in error.

Should anyone be interested in this ebook, see http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I

Venezuela in Chaos

Venezuela has enormous oil reserves, it has been selling oil for nearly a hundred years, and its people are impoverished. So what went wrong? Some say it is a fine example of the failings of socialism, but in fact it was plutocratic capitalism that set the rot in place.

Venezuela was possibly the richest country in South America before it struck oil. Because there was so much of it, foreign oil companies poured in, as did their money. This caused the local currency to increase wildly. The oil companies paid locals huge salaries or wages, and the growth was so pronounced that any reasonable contractor worked in the oil industry. That meant that people left agriculture and manufacturing by locals was squeezed for capital.

Worse, when the politicians become corrupt, which is easily done when law and order is weak and there is money flowing like water, the average person was overlooked and they slid into poverty. At first the plutocrats simply walked off with the profits but by 1950 the government reformed the industry and required half the profits to go to the state. This had the effect of making the government essentially totally dependent on oil money. For Venezuela the effect has been so dramatic that oil now accounts for about 98% of its exports, and up to 50% of its GDP. In the 1970s, the Venezuelan government received huge incomes, which led to rampant mismanagement and embezzlement. In the 1980s oil prices plummeted and Venezuela sustained rampant inflation and massive debts, in part due to government investments offshore that were not exactly wise. The IMF gave its usual recipe: austerity, and there were major riots. Austerity hurts the poor, while the rich remain unscathed, which may be why the bankers of the IMF favour it.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected President on a socialist pledge, and while he did significantly improve the lot of the average Venezuelan, he also badly mismanaged the oil industry and the economy in general. Chavez also bailed out Cuba by supplying it with oil, and also managed to greatly increase national debt. His government was authoritarian, and when he was replaced by Maduro, the latter has probably become more authoritarian.

Maduro inherited a mess, and he was not gifted with luck. Between 2014 – 2016, oil prices slumped by a factor of three. The government gets out of its debt problems by inflating the currency, which may be running at a million per cent now. The effect of this is the impoverishment of the middle classes. The very rich get richer by picking up assets at a huge discount in forced sales. Currently, 90% live in poverty.

There are various opinions on what should have been done. The most obvious one is to have strong law and order and fiscal responsibility. The second is to ensure the wealth is controlled. A good example of this is Norway, where oil contributes 80% of its exports, but only 22% of its GDP, and huge reserves are being held for the future. Another good example where I have lived was Calgary. The state government poured money into health care, which was extremely cheap when I was there, and they had excellent roads and general infrastructure. My opinion is that such resource-rich economies must invest a large amount of the income in broadening the economy. In Venezuela’s case, there has been economic broadening, although agriculture contributes only 3% of GDP. It is largely a food importer, for no good reason. Nevertheless, while exports total $32 billion, imports only total $17.75 billion. The problem is with government finance. It has income of almost $93 billion, and expenses roughly twice that.

Maduro replaced Chávez in 2013 and narrowly won an election. There was a recent election that Maduro also won, but which the opposition boycotted. There are accusations that the elections would be rigged, and since then there are accusations that they were, but if there were no opposition candidates that seems somewhat moot. It is one thing to complain that elections were rigged; an entirely different matter to assert they were going to be rigged. Two weeks later, Juan Guaidó, leader of the legislature, declared himself acting President. The US government has declared support for Guaidó and refuses to recognize Maduro, and threatens that if he does not step down, they will make him. They declare the election was illegitimate, but do not cite any grounds. Exactly how Guaidó declaring himself President is more legal eludes me. If the opposition did not stand, it is hard to see how Maduro could not win, and if simply boycotting an election was sufficient to overturn an election, why Mr Trump could consider what would happen if Hillary had boycotted their election. The US claims the majority prefer Guaidó, but arguably the majority voted for Hillary, and I don’t see Trump stepping down. Nor should he, at least on that ground. The rules are the rules. Trump has even hinted at military intervention. Other countries have backed Guaidó. Macron has argued he should note the protests on the street. So should Macron. Hypocrisy runs strong when politicians have a deep problem and they can divert attention from their own failings.

The Venezuelan military is at this moment behind Maduro, and while that is the case, short of a massive US invasion, he is likely to stay there, and the Venezuelans are likely to stay poor. US sanctions are not helping, but US sanctions have been there for quite a long time and are not recent, although the recent freezing of oil money will hurt the poor even more. The history of US intervention is not good, the worst example being, in my opinion, the removal of Allende in Chile, which occurred because (a) he was a socialist, and (b) US corporations could control the copper. The fact that Pinochet murdered a large number of Allende supporters bothers not the US conscience. I heard one speech where it was stated that control of the oil industry would make things better for Venezuela and the US. So at least someone in Washington thinks US corporations should have the Venezuelan oil.

So how do they get out of this mess? Who knows? The economists say Venezuela must diversify its economy and do a number of other things, but the problem is with most of the population impoverished, they cannot start much. One thing I have learned while running my own business is that if you have no money, you are screwed. So what will happen, other than the poor becoming poorer? Who knows?