Tough talk about America's oil addiction

A new book questions dreams of energy independence.

PublicAffairs 371 pp. $26.95

Thomas Edison altered the course of civilization by helping to pioneer a reliable, affordable, and mass-produced incandescent bulb. But, as author Robert Bryce points out, there was a breakthrough that escaped Edison’s grasp: How to build a hyperefficient, long-lived, electric battery capable of powering homes, industry, and transportation – smoke free.

In his new book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of ‘Energy Independence,’ Bryce, a freelance journalist who specializes in the fossil-fuel industry, tosses out a bold idea: Launch a global competition, called “the Superbattery Prize,” that would award $1 billion to the inventor who successfully produces such a battery.

Better yet, he says, give $10 billion to the modern Edison who develops a revolutionary energy grid based on batteries that can store multiple-kilowatt hours of electricity and eliminate the need to burn vast quantities of oil and coal.

The paradox of the high premium is that it would actually be a bargain, given the world’s current energy-related challenges.

Bryce considers himself an optimist but his book throws cold water on the current rush to embrace alternative energy sources.

As his title suggests, he believes that arguments for swift curtailment of oil consumption on the premise that it will enable America to achieve “energy independence” are grossly misinformed or deliberately deceptive.

Readers who think they know a cure for oil addiction, be they neoconservatives or liberals, will find this book maddening. Bryce’s line of argument, however, is not one that can be easily dismissed. Indeed, his treatise ought to be required for not only members of Congress, but environmentalists, military commanders, CEOs, and investors betting the farm on ethanol.

His analysis, that the world is nowhere near phasing out oil, is provocative. He calls ethanol subsidies a costly “scam” that enables automakers to distort purported gains in fuel efficiency. He notes that ethanol production drives up food costs for a hungry world while it barely delivers a viable, lower-carbon fuel than oil.

He dismisses wind power as unreliable. He disparages environmentalists – Al Gore and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman included – and the war in Iraq.

But to withdraw from Middle Eastern oil producers, which anchor the largest and most vital industry in the world, is pure folly, Bryce suggests. The author insists it would jeopardize, not bolster, national security; do nothing to diminish the threat of Islamic terrorism; and weaken US economic might in the face of a rising China and India. Bryce uses Iran as an example of the harm that can be done when the US demonizes a country sitting on an ocean of black liquid gold.

“Indeed, for all of the Bush administration’s piety about the need to isolate Iran, the outcome of Bush’s policies appears to be exactly the opposite of what was intended: The one being isolated on the energy front isn’t Iran; it’s the U.S.”

America’s thirst for oil is so insatiable, and society’s infrastructure so inextricably dependent upon oil, that the prudent course from Capitol Hill should be securing as much from the Persian Gulf as possible and aggressively tapping into all known domestic reserves to keep the economy afloat, he says.

Bryce is no fan of the war in Iraq. China, he says, is buying all the oil it can from the Persian Gulf without deploying troops. “The Chinese, by not fighting elective wars, are growing strong and richer,” he writes.

“Meanwhile, America, by fighting an elective war has dug itself into a quagmire that has made it weaker and poorer.”

Agree or disagree with Bryce’s call to maintain the oil status quo (promoted in conjunction with expanding natural gas drilling and constructing more refineries), what’s not debatable is the depth of his research and ability to crunch numbers.

Yet “A Gusher of Lies” downplays the impact of soaring oil prices and unfortunately does not address the rippling current impacts of $125 per barrel crude on working-
class families. His suggestion for keeping costs down is to pump more out of the ground, even if it means sending plumes of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere. And this premise leads one to the major conceit of his book. Bryce deliberately stays out of the global warming fray, claiming he has not yet formulated a firm position on the science.

His refusal to engage on that issue, when climate change is the preeminent impetus for society investing in alternative fuels, leaves one wondering: What is the author’s real agenda?

One thing is clear: Without China and India being induced to reduce their carbon emissions, it makes no sense for the US and the rest of the developed world that met at Kyoto and held recent talks in Bali to impose limits, he says. He makes a compelling case for investing in nuclear power (because its waste is more manageable than carbon dioxide) and he sees merit in expanding arrays of solar power.

In the 19th century, society was wiping out whales and other sea creatures in the oceans, based upon the belief that the oil from their bodies provided necessary fuel for lamps. Then came the sudden advent of electricity, copper wire in homes, and Edison’s paradigm-shifting bulbs. Bryce believes that humankind can rescue itself with the proper economic motivation for its deepest thinkers. Until that happens, however, society must accept that it depends on the black stuff coming out of the ground. No dreaming about alternatives is going to make that fact go away.

Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Mont.

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