In his forthcoming book Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” (PublicAffairs) Robert Bryce, managing editor of Energy Tribune and author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron, grapples with what he detects as a growing belief, both among policy elites and the public, in “energy independence.”
That’s the notion that America should disengage from world energy markets and seek self-sufficiency in energy production. To Bryce, this is not only impossible, but dangerous to even attempt. As he writes in the book’s introduction, the quest for energy independence “means protectionism and isolationism, both of which are in opposition to America’s long-term interests.”
Some of the myths of energy independence Bryce takes aim at are summed up in this January Washington Post op-ed. They include the false belief that U.S. energy autarky can curb terrorism; that government investment in “alternative fuels” can end our use of foreign oil; that we can starve evil petro-regimes of money by refusing to buy their oil; and that less reliance on foreign energy sources can make our energy supply more secure.
Like any decision to isolate ourselves from the free international market, the search for energy independence would, Bryce demonstrates, lead us to waste our money and, yes, our energy doing things more expensively than they can be done by taking advantage of the international division of labor and flow of capital.
reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty, author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs), interviewed Bryce by phone last week.
reason: While “energy independence” has soared to fresh public prominence in this era of soaring gas prices and Mideast wars, it’s not a new idea, is it?
Robert Bryce: The first president to promote the idea was [Richard] Nixon in the wake of the oil embargo in 1973. In his State of the Union address in 1974, Nixon said that he was aiming for energy independence by the end of the decade. He hoped that by 1980 the U.S. would not be importing any oil. And every president since Nixon, in one way or another, has espoused a similar idea. But if you look back at the data, the U.S. was a net crude oil importer [as early as] 1913 and ever since we’ve been a net crude importer with a handful of years [as exceptions]. It’s remarkable how much the rhetoric about “energy independence” has had no connection with reality.
reason: What do its proponents think we can get out of energy independence?
Bryce: The main talking points for those who promote energy independence are, one, that if we were just more tech-savvy we can develop lots of new jobs, and that would be great—we can build windmills, solar panels, whatever nifty new whizbang tech is going to replace oil, and that will stimulate the economy.
Second, they love biofuels. We can just grow the fuels we need to replace imported oil and it will be great for farmers and the rural economy. Third, [energy independence proponents] conflate oil and terrorism. Those arguments really came to the fore since the 9/11 attacks. We buy imported oil, some of our suppliers are Islamic petro-states, some Islamic petro-states send some dollars to support radical Islam, therefore oil equals terrorism and “energy independence” is anti-terror.
The idea is that if we could isolate the oil-exporting countries that in theory support terror we’d cut off its lifeline. The connections of Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 terror attacks are real, I’m not denying that. But you cannot, given the complexity and enormous size and interconnectedness of the global crude oil market, separate one actor from another.
S. Fred Singer [of the Science and Environmental Policy Project] came up with the best analogy. He described the global oil market like a big bathtub. All the oil production is dumped into one bathtub and all consumers have straws sucking oil out. [For all economic purposes] it’s like we’re all sucking from the same common pool. To say you are not gonna buy Saudi oil, or Algerian oil—it’s crazy. For example, the U.S. hasn’t purchased a dime of Iranian oil—except for a small amount in the early ‘90s, but for the most part no Iranian oil since 1979. And that hasn’t stopped Iran from supporting Hezbollah.
reason: Can increased energy efficiency help us achieve the goal of “energy independence”?
Bryce: To answer that, you need to understand the “Jevons paradox.” In 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons published a book, The Coal Question, which projected that Britain was on the precipice of disaster because it was running out of coal. Sound familiar? But it still hasn’t happened. Jevons’ discovery was that energy efficiency doesn’t decrease demand—it increases it.
We’re told that if we just push more efficient technologies like fluorescent light bulbs and drive Priuses that energy use will decline. It’s just not true. There’s a graphic in my book that shows the decline in the number of BTUs consumed per dollar of GDP [from 19,000 BTUs consumed per dollar of GDP in 1950, to a projected 9,000 BTUs in 2010], but energy consumption continued to grow.