Friday, March 26, 2004

Frontier Outpost
This week the Wall St. Journal Online carried an interview with Amory Lovins, the guru and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an alternative energy think tank. His views on the future of the oil industry and other parts of the mainstream energy landscape are interesting and iconoclastic. They are worth noting as much because of who else is listening to them as for their insights. Mr. Lovins has the attention of global energy and auto firms, among others, a fact that becomes even more surprising when you realize how critical he is of their orthodoxies.

In the interview, along with some good observations about China's growing energy demand, Mr. Lovins compares the oil and airline industries as "a great industry but a bad business." This seems a stretch, considering the highly profitable super-majors dominating the oil and gas scene today. While it is true that these firms and their smaller brethren have not consistently recovered their cost of capital or outperformed the market over time, they are a million miles from the sad state of commercial aviation. As of a few years ago, the latter had delivered a cumulative loss since its inception , and it's hard to see that the post-9/11 world would have improved that score.

Still, Mr. Lovins shines in creating a compelling vision of a future world of clean and efficient energy and transportation, even if I'm skeptical that we can get there in the manner he describes. You need visionaries pushing the frontiers, and he certainly qualifies as one.

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