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Efficiency can be a great thing for its own sake. It can mean good things for the economy and for people, but it doesn’t mean we’ll use less energy overall. We’ll use more. And not just the U.S., but the Chinese, Vietnamese, Pakistanis.
One anecdote that illustrates the principle: I had a friend who bought a Prius tell me the other day how he used to take the train to New York to see the opera. But now they have a car that gets 40 miles per gallon, so they just drive. It becomes more efficient on a mile per gallon basis, but on a total BTUs consumed basis, no.
reason: How about domestic renewables as a solution to dependence on foreign oil?
Bryce: I’m not opposed to renewables. I have 3,000 watts of solar panels on the roof of my home. I understand the economics of renewables. But an incurable problem for both solar and wind is intermittency. The sun doesn’t shine at night. I like to have lights and TV at night. Unless we come up with some incredibly efficient method of storing large amounts of electricity, it’s not a viable source because we can’t store it.
It’s the same problem with wind. I consider wind the electric-sector equivalent of the ethanol hype. At a conference recently I asked a wind guy, “Without subsidies, how many projects now under way [regarding wind] would make economic sense?” He said maybe 30 percent.
reason: You sound skeptical about ethanol as well.
Bryce: The ethanol scam is the longest running robbery of taxpayers in American history. Some recent news reports, which I don’t discuss in the book, include a report showing [that] corn-based ethanol releases [more] greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. That’s just one indictment of the inefficiency of the whole process. It’s also fiscal insanity—providing 51 cent per gallon subsides for making fuel from what’s already the most subsidized crop.
In 2005 federal corn subsidies approached $9.4 billion, which is around the entire budget of the Department of Commerce, with 39,000 employees. It also takes orders of magnitude more water to make corn ethanol than [is used for] gasoline production. Given the problems in the West and Southwest with water, it’s insane to think we’re going to be able to produce sufficient ethanol to make a dent in gasoline use when the amount of water needed is so high.
reason: What about the promise of changes in foreign policy in the Mideast if we could wean ourselves off their oil?
Bryce: People like to think that if only we bought less oil we wouldn’t need to be in the Persian Gulf. It sounds appealing. The reality is the U.S. gets 11 percent [of its oil] from the Persian Gulf. From a strategic point of view it was a big mistake assuming militarism is better than markets. The key adjustment is to make markets trump militarism when it comes to the Persian Gulf. We’re not the most reliant [on Persian Gulf oil]—it’s the Japanese, the French, the rest of Europe, China. If we want to have stability in the Persian Gulf, it’s not just for the U.S. It’s good for the whole world, so the U.S. needs to understand that it shouldn’t be its burden alone.
reason: I thought what you had to say about Saudi Arabian energy independence was interesting.
Bryce: The Saudis in 2005 imported 83,000 barrels of gasoline per day. Here is a country with the single largest oil deposits on the planet and they are importing gasoline. Iran too is importing 40 percent of its gasoline, because it doesn’t have enough refining capacity. Iran has the second largest reserves of natural gas and is importing natural gas to northern Iran because its gas reserves are in the south. Do we need better examples of energy interdependence? If even Saudi Arabia and Iran are energy interdependent, why wouldn’t we be?
It isn’t like energy is the only vital thing we aren’t “independent” in. I have a chart in the book which shows, using data from the U.S. Geologic Survey, some mineral commodities. We import 100 percent of more than a dozen—fluorspar, yttrium, strontium, vanadium, arsenic among others. These are industrial commodities we need to power our economy—yttrium in televisions, microwaves, ceramics; strontium for nuclear fuel; manganese in steel and iron. These are things we have to have, and we import 100 percent of them.
The only energy source with zero carbon emissions in electric power is nuclear. And that’s another example of interdependence. We import 83 percent of our uranium. There are other countries like Kazakhstan with much larger reserves of uranium than the U.S. which can mine it more cheaply.
“Energy independence” would dictate that if we use nuclear power we must produce our own uranium to fire those reactors. Why would we wanna do that if someone else is a lower-cost producer? If we get to [obtain a resource] for less, why wouldn’t we do that? We do it with shoes, iPods, cell phones, watches, fresh flowers, you name it. We rely on global commercial markets for all kinds of things—what’s wrong with relying on it for uranium?