Monday, May 05, 2008

Going It Alone

The quest for US energy independence might just be the biggest and most persistent bad idea in the last several decades of energy policy. I've been railing about this subject since I started this blog more than four years ago, and I have acquired a deep understanding of what it means to swim against a strong tide. A few years ago, pointing out the impracticality of energy independence was treated as a mild eccentricity; since then it has become a form of political incorrectness verging on heresy. I'm glad to have some company in this effort, from the author of a comprehensive examination of the subject, "Gusher of Lies," by Robert Bryce. It provides a useful counterpoint to a seemingly endless stream of books and articles extolling the virtues and relative ease of shaking off our oil habit and thumbing our noses at the global energy market. But while I agree wholeheartedly with the main thrust of Mr. Bryce's book, I feel obliged to mention a few quibbles.

The subtitle of "Gusher of Lies" provides a good sense of the author's perspective on America's energy problems. "The Dangerous Delusions of 'Energy Independence'" sets it at odds with many of the statements about energy that we've heard from candidates in the current election cycle. Among the strongest chapters in the book are those placing our desire for energy independence in the context of the long energy history of this country, and explaining why many common assumptions about the mechanisms for attaining independence--and its ultimate outcome--are either mistaken or unwarranted. That's particularly true concerning the Middle East, which would continue to hold most of the world's oil endowment--and thus remain of paramount strategic importance to the global energy economy--regardless of the level of US energy imports.

As I've pointed out here periodically, energy independence is unattainable for the US at an acceptable price through any strategy, technology, or combination of them currently available to us, nor is it especially desirable in a world that is increasingly interdependent for basic commodities, manufactured goods, financing, and to a growing degree, for services and intellectual capital. Mr. Bryce shares this perspective, and he demonstrates it in many pages of facts and figures, scrupulously referenced in 50 pages of footnotes. Among the many sacred cows he takes on, he scorns corn ethanol and expresses skepticism about the chances of large-scale reliance on cellulosic biofuels. Nor is he enamored of coal-to-liquids or wind power, which he regards as "the electricity sector's equivalent of ethanol." Whether you accept his arguments or not, they provide a useful opportunity to ponder the likelihood that a transition away from oil-based transportation fuels and their valuable byproducts will be arduous, protracted and expensive, while failing to deliver the utopia that many expect.

"Gusher of Lies" does a good job explaining why the vast scale of our energy consumption and the trends of history, economics and geology work against the prospect of reducing by very much our reliance on other countries for primary energy. Unfortunately, the author's apparent neutrality on the subject of climate change creates a bias for the status quo that leads him to underestimate the incentives for greatly expanding our use of renewable energy forms such as wind power. And while he describes in some detail the geopolitical shifts that are marginalizing the formerly-dominant publicly-traded oil & gas companies, I didn't sense much concern about the way that bilateral arrangements between national oil companies of producing and consuming countries are undermining the vitality of the global free market for energy on which he urges us to rely for our energy security. As a result, he misses an obvious role for productive involvement by the federal government in bolstering the efforts of publicly-traded companies to gain access to global resources locked up behind nationalistic barriers.

Two other quibbles:
  • Although the principal messages of "Gusher of Lies" aren't tied to any particular political ideology, Mr. Bryce's digressions on the evils of neo-conservatism and the errors of certain well-known media pundits became tiresome and distracting, undermining his main focus.

  • The last section offering potential solutions to our energy challenges that avoid the independence trap seemed a little light. That's a shame, because several of his suggestions, such as simplifying the current nightmare of conflicting gasoline formulations and creating a "superbattery prize" look beneficial and relatively uncontroversial, and could be accomplished with the stroke of a pen.
Don't let these minor shortcomings deter you from reading "Gusher of Lies." The higher oil prices go--and oil company profits with them--the greater the temptation to seek miracle cures for our energy problems. Mr. Bryce reminds us that as important as energy is, it does not stand apart from a national economy that is deeply connected to the rest of the world, any more than it can be divorced from the laws of thermodynamics. Nor should his informed skepticism be mistaken for cynicism or a sense of futility. His realistic portrayal of our energy situation is timely and important, dismissing widespread notions of quick-and-easy solutions and making a strong case that the current yearning for energy self-sufficiency, while understandable, is both unattainable and inconsistent with the basis of much of our post-World War II success. You can read the first chapter here.

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