Gain a wider awareness of the process industry

Oct. 19, 2015
Worry less about the Dow Jones Industrial Average in real time. Worry more about investing in companies and products that users really need
About the author
Jim Montague is the Executive Editor at Control and Control Design magazines. Jim has spent the last 13 years as an editor and brings a wealth of automation and controls knowledge to the position. For the past eight years, Jim worked at Reed Business Information as News Editor for Control Engineering magazine. Jim has a BA in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and lives in Skokie, Illinois.Lately, many financial markets and economies have been taking investors and citizens on some gut-wrenching rollercoaster rides. Slightly further back, many process and other industries have been coping with the transition from $4-per-gallon gas, shrinking reserves, oil sands scrubbing, importing LNG, worker shortages and arctic drilling to $2-per-gallon gas, fracking, exporting LNG, oil and gas gluts and unemployment. The increasingly wild and catastrophic weather swings due to global warming are the best example of all.

Given all the stress and wasted resources that these huge peaks and valleys cause, I continually come back to the question of whether there's better way. Isn't there some method for ironing out these enormous wrinkles, tuning these economic and environmental loops, and giving us all a little relief?

While some rules might help, I don't think sweeping, state-based regulations can handle these situations. I don't believe similar directives ever succeeded in the totalitarian regimes that tried them, and Prohibition was a failure in the U.S. The well-known lesson, "You can't legislate morality.” My version is everyone has to agree to de facto standards like wearing clothes and driving on the right side of the road.

Extractors, processors and other manufacturers must be free to produce what they think they can sell, and users and consumers must be free to buy what they need. However, this doesn't mean we can't take a longer-term view and exercise some voluntary restraint, right?

But how can this be done when the primary goal is to make as much money as fast we can? I know, it seems impossible. I don't even have my usual smug answer for this one.

From our hunter-gatherer days to the latest fracking boom and bust and repeated Wall Street malfeasances, we've always been hard-charging predators who go in and grab everything we can right away, pile it up and guard against anyone doing the same to us. This is a terrific strategy for hunter-gatherer survival, but it's increasingly less useful as civilizations grow, and the interests of their tribes and members become interrelated and overlap.

Long ago, I covered several small towns that let developers keep building strip malls way beyond the local and expected population's ability to support them. Property owners have a right to develop their holdings and businesses as they see fit, but these projects sputtered, failed and wasted many resources. Similarly, just before the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, large parts of the delicate U.S. prairie were carelessly plowed and planted with wheat, but so much was produced that prices plummeted, bankrupting many farmers. Sound familiar?

So can any thought be given to maybe conserving some hydrocarbon and other resources for a rainy day when they'll be worth more anyway? Fracking wells generally have much shorter production lives than their traditional counterparts, so some careful husbanding might extend their productive lifecycles and overall profitability—if a less immediate view of that profitability can be adopted.

The same goes for economies and financial markets. Worry less about the Dow Jones Industrial Average in real time, which is just a fruit salad of dissimilar performances. Worry more about investing in companies, projects and products that consumers actually need.

All indications are that developing regions worldwide will need raw materials far into the future, which will keep commodity prices up despite current fluctuations. So the present challenge is to gain a wider awareness of the process industry and financial worlds in which we participate, recognize their functional limits, and maybe rein in some production or find other tweaks to tame today's bronco bucking.

We can't always do more of what we've always done and expect to succeed. Sure, freedom includes the freedom to be stupid and fail, but who really wants to do that?

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.