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April 18th, 2008

Robert Bryce, _Gusher of LIes_

Subtitled: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence"

Published by Public Affairs this year, and with what appears to be a positive review by Matthew Simmons. Bryce is up-front about his politics, a member of the Disgusted Party who is libertarian. The text of the book indicates he strongly favors regulation to protect human health, private property and the environment, in basically that order (direct quote on p 255, numerous other direct and indirect instances). Bryce lives in Austin, TX and has solar panels on his home, the performance of which was not what he had hoped for in the beginning, but which was not so negative as to turn him off solar entirely. He has held views in the past which he abandons in this book (such as a high(er) gas tax, carbon tax, etc.).

I agree with Bryce's central thesis, which is that the idea of "energy independence" is loopy and efforts to implement it (if they ever actually happened, which thus far has not been the case) would probably have a lot of really negative effects. He did a lot of very good research along the way, and presents it clearly. There are, however, some serious problems with the argument.

He selectively uses energy profit analysis and excessive water use to debunk ethanol (which I agree with him on) from corn or cellulosic sources. He does not use energy profit analysis with reference to Canadian tar sands. However, the tar sands are only mentioned in passing in discussing where Canadian natural gas is going. He selectively uses transportation costs in similar manner, barely touching on the complex transportation problem of transporting natural gas.

He selectively uses human rights abuses to attack sugar cane based ethanol in Brazil (which I agree with him on), and while he mentions political problems in places like Nigeria, he does an inadequate job of discussing human rights abuses associated with developing fossil fuels (and uranium, for that matter). He asserts we can buy fuels from these places/governments and work on the human rights problems through the political process.

He selectively uses countries who have had severe NIMBY issues with wind power, ignoring countries with a long and successful history of wind power. He does not discuss NIMBY issues associated with developing fossil fuels compared to wind power. However, he concludes that NIMBY fossil fuels issues (states who object to offshore development that might, say, wipe out their tourism industry) should be overridden by the federal government, but NIMBY wind issues are a reason why wind isn't going to be successful.

He recognizes that (a) the US has massively increased energy efficiency/intensity (we get more out of each Btu) compared to decades past and (b) we use a lot more Btus compared to decades past. He uses this (as is typical) as an argument against increased efficiency as a route out of the problem. His basis appears to be charting economic development against Btus/fossil fuel/energy use. More is better. Therefore, his goals are increased supplies and lowered price. He never mentions the many countries, and at least a few states which have developed their economy with level use of energy (the Netherlands, California, etc.).

He asserts that Americans don't want ... smaller houses, cars, higher fuel efficiency, etc., despite citing surveys that show Americans do want more fuel efficient vehicles and don't want to pay a higher gas tax. I read this as, people want the option of using less fuel; they don't want to be charged more for what they have to use anyway, when they get no choice in terms of vehicle. This doesn't seem to occur to him.

This book was written at a what currently looks like an unfortunate moment. When he wrote it, gas in real dollars was about what it had been many decades before. It has since gone enough higher that those kinds of gas-is-cheap-in-historic-terms arguments is looking silly. While months from now, you'all may be laughing at me, right now, West Texas as of 2:09 p.m. hit $116/barrel. Not funny.

He dismisses individual efforts to reduce consumption, partly because developing nations are increasing their use. He ignores the relative amounts being used; an American who halves their energy consumption can offset a half dozen Chinese or Indians doubling theirs.

He recognizes that (a) terrorism just doesn't cost us that much in lives or money, unless we let it influence our actions in certain ways (occupying other countries (b) terrorism is more effectively dealt with politically than militarily and (c) just about everything we've done has been specifically counter-productive in the last few years (attacking and occupying Iraq, attempting to isolate Iran, etc.).

He avoids getting bogged down in discussions of global warming, noting that reducing carbon inputs is a good idea regardless. I applaud this rhetorical choice. He takes Peak Oil relatively seriously, but uses it primarily as yet-another-argument for a globally interconnected energy market.

And there's a whole lot more. What's the take away?

Bryce is no doom-and-gloomer. He's not going to even get into what-happens-when-it's-all-gone much less what-about-when-the-low-countries-are-underwater. His attitude is, we're going to be using fossil fuels for decades to come, and none of the proposed alternatives is a drop-in replacement. Talking like they are is dumb, deceptive, designed to quell entirely understandable and justified anxiety, counterproductive and dangerous. Bryce is also no Pollyanna, except possibly when it comes to nuclear waste. He treats the debate about Yucca as a political issue, rather than a disaster in the making, and minimizes the amount of waste generated by nuclear plants. He figures if we have the political will to make nukes work, we'll get 'er done.

But Bryce has created his argument with a conclusion pre-selected, and a dramatic unwillingness to imagine alternative constraints. In his world, most transportation in the 18th and 19th centuries involved horses. My reading of history suggests that's true only in the sense of riding Shank's mare: walking is how most people got from point a to point b, and how most goods moved as well. I remember how startled I was to learn that beautiful furniture made for the very wealthy English landowners was often not transported by wagon; that would have beat it up too much. Nope. It was _hand carried_. For miles.

In Bryce's world, no one will move closer to work. No one walks to work. No one bicycles to work. Roads and bridges matter, and he never talks about railroads, so it's not clear whether he includes rail-roads and rail-bridges into his calculation. In Bryce's world, there are cooling costs (air conditioning) but heating costs are not mentioned. No one will modify their homes (other than possibly to put solar panels on) to reduce their fuel use, because the only fuel use that matters is that used for transportation. Everyone wants more power and to drive faster; no one would reverse that to save a buck or a hundred. There are no corporations which have substantially invested in renewables-on-the-roof (solar, but also some wind and some geothermal) because brownouts in California were unacceptably damaging to business.

I could go on. It's tempting. But I've already posted about what's happening to the lodging industry, and the food and beverage industry. I've posted about record levels of public transportation (which is also never mentioned by Bryce, nor is ridesharing of any sort) use, reduced vehicle miles traveled and people eliminating unnecessary trips and consolidating trips to save on gas. When Bryce said we could become energy independent and a net energy exporter by reducing our energy use by 84% my next question was, what set of conservation measures would get us there in the next 2-5 years. But that's not a question he is ever going to ask, so this book, at least, isn't going to answer it.

I _highly_ recommend this book, believe it or not. Get it from a library if you can, but it's worth paying hardcover and then loaning around. There's a lot of good analysis in here; my primary objections lie in his assumptions. And those assumptions are shared by most of our country. Bryce's book has the potential to really change the debate in a direction that might eventually drag us around to where I think it should be. Just notice where all the weird little holes are.