The whole idea of “energy independence,” writes Robert Bryce, exuberantly, is “Hogwash.” And like so many things, Mr. Bryce tells us, it all began with Richard Nixon.
“Every U.S. President since Richard Nixon has extolled [sic] the need for energy independence. In 1974, Nixon promised it could be achieved within 6 years.” Gerald Ford promised it in 10, and Jimmy Carter pledged to wage the “moral equivalent of war” (the acronym MEOW proved appropriate) to achieve it.
In “Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusion of ‘Energy Independence,’” Mr. Bryce, despite a tendency to reach for the rhetorical sledge- hammer, writes with strength and gusto, and is an equal opportunity attacker.
“I did not write this book with a political agenda,” he tells us. “I am neither Democrat or Republican. I am a charter member of the Disgusted Party. I’m a radical centrist, a raging moderate who leans toward the libertarian… .” The purpose of his book, he writes, is “to debunk the concept of energy independence and show that none of the alternative or renewable energy resources now being hyped — corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, wind power, solar power, corn-to-liquids, and so on — will free America from imported fuels.”
As Mr. Bryce sees it, “in the post-September 11 world, many American have been hypnotized by the conflation of two issues: oil and terrorism.” As a result, “Americans have … swallowed the notion that all foreign oil … is bad.” Thus, “the common wisdom is to seek the balm of energy independence. And that balm is being peddled by the Right, the Left, the Greens, Big Agriculture, Big Labor, Republicans, Democrats, senators, members of the House, George W. Bush, the opinion page of the New York Times, and the neoconservatives.”
Mr. Bryce also excoriates Greenpeace, World Watch Institue, Amory Lovins, Al Gore and his championing of “the enthanol scam,” as well as all the presidential candidates, Nancy Pelosi, the Center for American Progress, Robert Redford (also touting the ethanol scam), Thomas Friedman, and even poor James Carville.
All of these actors, with various supporting casts, are involved in misleading American voters about our nation’s energy needs and the possibilities of weaning ourselves from foreign sources. But in fact, writes Mr. Bryce, in a $5 trillion-per-year interconnected global energy business, that is neither possible nor even desirable. “There are three main reasons: energy use keeps growing; energy efficiency won’t necessarily mean a reduction in consumption; and most important, renewable energy and alternative fuels simply cannot provide the volume needed to replace traditional fossil fuels at any time in the foreseeable future.”
By 2030, wind will perhaps provide just over 1 percent of all our electricity, and solar less than that. And as for ethanol — despite massive subsidies, untruthful publicity, and windfalls to a new generation of moonshiners in Iowa — if all the corn grown in America were made into ethanol, thereby wasting great quantities of water and adding significantly to air pollution, it would provide less than 6 percent of our consumption.
What, then, is to be done? The problem, Mr. Bryce seems to believe, is not overdependence but imbalance. Interdependence is by definition part of the global energy industry, and we’ll never achieve independence.
To this end, Mr. Bryce offers several suggestions, among them: Keep government’s role in regulating, taxing and subsidizing minimal; recognize that gasoline is a bargain, stop obsessing about prices, and reduce fuel blends; make investments in nuclear power, the only alternative able “to make a significant dent in the overall use of fossil fuels” and increase domestic production of natural gas and oil by opening up federal lands in locations like the eastern Gulf of Mexico and ANWR in Alaska.
All in all, a sensible approach. And in a way, it takes us back to where we came in, for Mr. Bryce’s approach bears similarities to Richard Nixon’s, as expressed in the 1974 State of the Union address.
In October of 1973, the Yom Kippur war broke out, with significant Arab gains. Richard Nixon intervened personally to resupply Israel. In retaliation, OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States and certain of our allies.
By early 1974, the price of a barrel of oil had quadrupled, as had gasoline prices. Supplies tightened, lines at gas station stretched for blocks, and the economy fell into recession. (Mr. Bryce says this was the result of price controls. But that’s not how we saw it then).
In response, Nixon launched “Project Independence” with a message to Congress, largely written by Ben Stein, calling among other things for increased use of nuclear power, relaxation of impediments to oil production and a go-ahead with construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline (the authorization for which had been passed by the Senate on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Agnew. One suspects it will take a similar jolt to force Congress to move on the development of ANWR).
In the subsequent State of the Union address, Nixon invoked the spirit of the Manhattan and Apollo Projects and called for measurable energy independence by 1980. Impossible? Perhaps. But for those of us writing the State of the Union Address of 1974 — President Nixon’s last, as it would turn out — it seemed no more difficult than putting a man on the moon.
And I suspect that Robert Bryce, who in an aside tells us that he once thought a Manhattan Project in energy possible, might have concurred.
“Hogwash” now, maybe.
But in that pre-Watergate period, perhaps not.
John Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.