BROOKLYN — While I was running a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, I wrote about a guy named Salvatore who lived next-door on School Street. His response to the first great American oil crisis, when the cost of heating fuel soared to almost a dollar a gallon, was to staple tarpaper to the eastern and southern walls of his house.
Before he did that, Salvatore had attended an auction where all the fittings from a grand, old, wood-frame hotel were being sold. He bought about 50 windows, and hauled them back to School St. Then, after stapling up all that tarpaper, he put up a veritable wall of old hotel windows about 12 inches outside the tarpapered walls. Then, he sealed the space between glass and tarpaper.
Anyone who has been in a greenhouse on a sunny winter day knows what Salvatore got. Heat from the sun, pouring through the glass, was absorbed by the black tarpaper, which got hot and started radiating heat, which was trapped in the 12-inch space. The temperature there, after a few hours, approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, although outside it might have been 20 degrees or colder. Innovation, simply done.
Salvatore's purpose, of course, was to heat his house for the price of a few rolls of tarpaper and a whole lot of used windows. With simple air pumps, Sal directed the overheated air from his makeshift greenhouse into adjacent rooms. Technologically, this was a crude and inefficient system to capture and pump warm air. It was useless on heavily overcast days and at night. But it worked well enough. Salvatore was able to turn off his furnace more than half the time and reduce his fuel bill by about two-thirds.
I thought of Salvatore when I read about Royal Dutch Shell trying to haul a new oil rig into the violent waters of the Gulf of Alaska. The rig broke loose in one of the region's typical winter storms and eventually crashed into the shore of a godforsaken island called Sitkalidak.
Luckily, the weather relented, allowing Shell to haul the battered rig away for repairs. But the incident illustrates the profound perils and astronomic costs of trying to pump oil from deep, deep beneath one of the most hellish spots on the face of the earth. Royal Dutch Shell is now deciding whether to abandon the effort. If it does, it will write off about $5 billion.
Tarpaper or tar sands?
This is where Salvatore comes to mind. Think of how many used hotel windows and square yards of tarpaper you could buy for $5 billion.
I also think of Salvatore when I read about the “lucrative” tar sands of Alberta. Apparently, the key to making money on the bitumen saturating Canada's Athabasca sands is building a pipeline to carry this toxic black gum — which won't flow unless it's diluted with the sort of chemicals that could melt the skin off a rhinoceros at 20 paces — from Alberta to Galveston, Texas. There, it will be pumped onto ships and sold overseas.
The reason the Canadians are suddenly harvesting this nasty slime and further contaminating it with various forms of methyl and kerosene and arsenic while building this unspeakably expensive pipeline, is that oil shortages all over the world are escalating the cost of fossil fuel. With gasoline at $2.50 a gallon, sand soaked with bitumen is just a godawful mess that you'll never get off your shoes. At five bucks, it's licorice champagne. The retrofit solution.
Back to Salvatore again. For the cost of extracting, diluting, pumping, piping and shipping all that vile bitumen — how many hotel windows, how much tarpaper, how many air pumps?
Advocates of the XL pipeline, designed to pass through the precious Ogalala Aquifer under the Great Plains, insist that some 6,000 jobs will result from its construction. But how many jobs if the US and Canada gave up the filth industry and committed instead to retrofitting every inefficient heat-leaking building in North America — including Sal's unsightly tarpaper greenhouse?
There are jobs, and there's still immense profit, in fossil fuels. But as these resources grow scarcer, they grow more complicated to exploit — and dangerous, to workers and to the Earth. By contrast, Salvatore demonstrated the sort of work that could be done on virtually every existing building. He achieved dramatic energy savings with minimal technology, no harm to the planet, and no more danger than climbing a ladder.
It seems to me, if the boys at Shell were as smart as they make themselves out to be, they'd get out of the Aleutians and into insulation.