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Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence

  1. Jun 25, 2008 #1
    Thought this book was really interesting and folks here might be interested in it. Basically the author claims that the idea of making America "energy independent" is neither reasonable, possible, nor deisrable, and that the whole concept of it is based on a bunch of myths and falsehoods.

    Bryce himself is an energy journalist, and in his words "a raging moderate." This it definitely seems, he is definitely not a hardcore Republican as he does much knocking on the "neocons" (who he distinguishes from "Republicans," so he doesn't consider all Republicans neocons) as well as the Democrats. He also quotes from both Left and Right sources, so the book seems pretty non-biased.

    He also completely firebombs the whole concept of ethanol, which if he is accurate, is an enormous sham.

    I will try to summarize the points he makes for why America should not and cannot ever be energy independent, but to get the full details you need to read the book:

    1) Even if energy independent, the U.S. would still be subject to the global price of oil, because domestic oil producers will sell to countries outside the U.S. if they can get higher prices there than here; oil traders sell to whereever costs the highest, to make the most profit.

    2) He says the whole concept of trying to remain independent is silly because now that energy is increasing in cost, the energy industry, in order to keep prcies as low as possible, is becoming very globally integrated. For example, a huge oil discovery was just made in Gulf of Mexico by three oil companies, two U.S. and one from Norway, all working together, as it is no longer practical for companies to search for oil strictly by themselves. Another example is BP (Beyond Pretroleum, formerly British Petroleum) is the largest domestic producer of oil in the U.S. (even though it's a foreign company!). He basically says, should we just tell BP and the Norwegian company to go take a hike and become "independent"? He says that the days in which one company did the searching, drilling, etc...itself doesn't exist anymore.

    3) He says the idea that being energy independent of the Middle East will not keep us militarily out of the Middle East because Saudi Arabia is such a crucial supplier of oil to the rest of the world, and will be so for decades to come. He says keeping the Saudi Royal Family in power is very important to keep that oil flowing, as if they were overthrown, it could disrupt the supply. He says economists estimate that if just 4% of world oil shipments are halted for a significant length of time, world crude prices could triple. The thing is that even if independent of the Middle East oil, the United States is not independent of the global economy, and skyrocketing crude prices from a disruption in the flow of Saudi oil could send the global economy reeling, which would of course impact the U.S. economy a lot as well. And of course, with the U.S. remaining under the global price of crude, tripling crude prices would cause a lot of havoc still.

    He also says that while vulnerable to this economically, the European and East Asian economies are very vulnerable to a disruption in the flow of the Saudi oil, and since the United States is who ensures the safety of the Saudi family, essentially the United States militarily subsidizes the security of Europe and East Asia.

    4) He says people make it sound as if oil is the only crucial ingredient the U.S. imports, but he says oil actually is only one substance very crucial to the functioning of the U.S. economy that is imported, and he gives a list of multiple other minerals: The U.S. imports 100% of its bauxite, alumina, manganese, strontium, yttrium, thirteen others. It also imports 99% of its gallium, 91 percent of its platinum, 88 percent of its tin, 81 percent of its palladium, 76 percent of its cobalt, and 72 percent of its chromium. He also says oil makes up only 7 percent of U.S. imports.

    5) He points out that America gets most of its oil from Canada and Mexico and not the Middle East, and the Middle East supplies about 11% of U.S. oil needs.

    6) He says that the commonly held notion that when you fill up your SUV, you are also providing the money to fund terrorists is not true. He gives a big description on this, talking about each country in the Middle East. He talks about how the finger is often pointed at the Saudis, but he says that the Saudis actually have worked within OPEC to keep the oil prices from growing too high (he explains how this is in their own best interest). He also explains about some good things Saudi Arabia has done. However, he doesn't deny that Saudi Arabia is still a place of fundamentalist and radical Islamists.

    He says that one can't deny that the Saudis have helped fund terrorists, but he says the notion that the Saudis and the oil money are the root cause of terrorism, and if the U.S. stopped buying their oil, that it would undermine the terrorists, is wrong. He references G.I. Wilson, a former Marine Corps colonel who has written extensively about the subject, who says the conflation of oil and terrorism is a contrivance.

    He points out that many terrorist groups have functioned for years without oil money, and that they mostly fund themselves through drugs and other illegal things. He gives more details, but too many to list here.

    7) He says the notion that energy independence would protect the U.S. from another oil embargo is false, and he explains that the first oil embargo in the 1970s did not really work and did not achieve its objectives, and that it would not at all be desirable these days for the Middle Eastern nations to enact an embargo. He also says any attempt to repeat the 1973 embargo would increase global crude prices, so the pain would be felt by everyone, not just America.

    8) He says another argument for energy independence is that if we stop buying the Middle East oil, and cause a collapse in global oil prices, it will crush dictators like Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad. He says that it's an interesting theory, but that acollapse in global oil prices could cause effects that would be ba for America long-term.

    For example, cheaper oil would allow the Chinese and Indian economies to go into hyper-drive and start growing even faster, China especially, as they have an insatiable thirst for oil, and will only be happy to start buying larger amounts of it if prices go down.

    He says that low prices would be terrible for Iraq, as the current higher prices have allowed Iraq to amass sizeable funds for its rebuilding effort. He also says they have helped offset Iraq's faltering oil production.

    He says a oil price crash could be disastrous for Mexico and could increase the illegal immigrants coming to America, as the Mexican government gets so many of its revenues from oil (about 37%). He points out that Mexico's state-owned oil company is already in dire financial straits, and a price crash could send it reeling, and with it, the Mexican government, which he says has already been weakened since the 2006 Presidential race there.

    He says that an oil price crash could end the push to create for fuel-efficient vehicles in America, and the push for renewable energy.

    He points out that a price collapse would devastate America's domestic oil industry, which would increase oil imports.

    He says a long period of cheap petroleum could cause instability in key regions of the Middle East because of economic problems, and if any major problems were to occur, the U.S. would have to step in.

    9) He says that energy independence will not provide the U.S. with better energy security. An example he gives is that after Hurricane Katrina, the reason gasoline shortages lasted only a short period of time was because of increasing oil imports. If the U.S. had been completely independent, then the gas and oil shortages would have continued for a long while until they repaired the oil refineries that had been damaged. He also gives other examples.

    10) He gives a huge chapter on the sham that is ethanol. Some points are that the company that has 60% of the ethanol market (Archer-Danliels-Midland Co. or ADM) is a known price-fixer (they were taken to Court in the 1990s over this). The family of this company has essentially admitted even that they want socialism of the agricultural industry in America.

    He also names many politicians, Republican and Democrat, who are in the pockets of this company, and industry overall. He points out for example how one Texas Republican tried to kill the ethanol subsidies, but was stopped short by Newt Gingrich. He also points out that Barack Obama actually used the corporate jets of ADM his first two years in office. He also shows how the ethanol industry has perverted the U.S. election system a good deal, because by making Iowa, the largest corn producing state (ethanol is made from corn) so influential in voting for Presidential candidates, all the Presidential candidates have become "pro-ethanol" to garner the Iowa vote. For example, both Senator Hillary Clinton and John McCain were staunch critics of ethanol. But then they did complete 180s and became huge supporters of it when they began running for President.

    He points out some other neat things though, for example, assume we could fuel all cars and trucks with corn-grown ethanol and stop importing oil. Well what happens if there's a long drought or bad weather that seriously messes up the corn crop? Fuel prices would skyrocket. Furthermore, remember this fuel would be being provided by a company that was dragged into court for price-fixing, controls 60% of the ethanol market alone, and is already supported by subsidies; if there was a corn crop shortage, the American taxpayer might have to bail out these ethanol companies while at teh same time paying higher fuel prices, and of course food prices.

    And something that occurred to me myself is, usually the same people pushing for ethanol are also the global warmers who claim that global warming will cause massive crop failures (for example Ted Turner said recently that we will become cannibals soon). So their solution, with impending crop failures, is to turn the entire fuel supply over to crops! A crop that when burned will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, and produces less energy than gasoline does, meaning you need to use more of it to get the same effect.

    And to supply all of current America with ethanol, we'd need 546 million acres of farmland. This is a problem, considering current U.S. farmland covers 446 million U.S. acres, and then you consider the fact of how our gasoline and diesel use will continue to grow in the future by a large amount. We could always start cutting down lots of trees I suppose to increase the farmland, but this would put the tree-huggers up in arms, so...point is, ethanol is a complete sham. It will not make America energy independent, is a lousy fuel source, it is a risky fuel source even if we could power all cars/trucks with it, and it is bad for the environment.

    And then there's all the water it would need; the West is already strapped for water.

    The ultimate question is: Do we use America's farmland to grow food or fuel? It cannot be both right now. And if we do go the ethanol way, we will end up just producing a useless fuel that will not make us less dependent on foreign oil (which as said isn't desirable anyhow), and at the same time, possibly making us dependent on other nations for food. It would be a real irony for one of the world's largest food producers to become one that has to import a lot of food.

    Ethanol also is what is increasing food prices; he points out how it has increased prices on multiple foods such as cheese, ice cream, eggs, poultry, pork, cereal, sugar, and beef.

    And finally, he says American taxpayers are taxed three different ways to pay for corn ethanol:
    1) Billions in subsidies for growing corn
    2) Billions in subsidies for turning that corn into ethanol
    3) Billions of dollars in costs resulting from higher food prices

    One group of scientists also wrote a report claiming that corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and ethanol from wood biomass, and soybeans, are all net losers in the energy, they all have a net loss.

    11) Going back to the massive need for water already, he says oil and refined fuel imports could actually be good in this sense, in that it will decrease the need for water for domestic fuels; the U.S. has little oil, but a large ability to grow food and lots of water; the Middle East has little freshwater, and thus little ability to grow food, but lots of petroleum; this thus creates mutual trade between the U.S. and these countries, where both countries benefit.

    12) He points out that despite being the Saudi Arabia of coal, America actually imports a good chunk of its coal and in the coming years is likely to become a net coal importer. He says one reason is because the federal regulations require low sulfur-dioxide coal and many companies just find it more profitable to import coal.

    14) He points out that the concept of America using nuclear power to be energy independent makes no sense, because America imports all its uranium. America does have uranium of its own, but this industry was pretty much ruined and likely will never reach its previous levels; also, America doesn't have the uranium reserves other countries do.

    15) He points out that America already imports electricity, getting certain electricity from both Mexico and from Canada.

    16) He criticized New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, because Friedman has talked very much about the world economy becoming so globalized and interconnected, but then he also is a staunch advocate for energy independece. Bruce says this is a totally contradictory viewpoint, because the energy business is the largest in the world and is very globalized and interconnected and becoming moreso every day. He says it is impossible to embrace the global economy but try to become completely independent of other countries for energy needs because everything is interconnected now.

    17) He says the U.S. cannot isolate Iran. The U.S. is currently the largest consumer of oil, yet it does not buy any oil from Iran. This does not stop Iran from selling every bit of oil it produces. Furthermore, it doesn't stop multiple other countries, many that are U.S. allies, from buying oil from Iran and doing business with them, either. Even Halliburton did business with Iran for years, albeit that has now stopped. Point is that despite trying to isolate Iran, companies and countries will find ways to work around trade sanctions imposed on Iran.

    18) The U.S. is losing its ability to be the main influencer of global oil usage because of China and India and other nations. If the U.S. stops buying oil from foreign countries, they will just sell it to someone else. So it wouldn't make sense to be enegy independent to try and "stave" the oil producers who are thugs.

    I didn't agree 100% with everything he said in the book, but I think he makes many very valid points and that people should definitely read the book.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2008 #2
    Interesting post. I think the point of energy independence was to not have to deal with brutal regimes so directly, as it is very hypocritical for us to be doing so. But, I agree this seems implausible even if we allow more of our oil resources to be tapped by the oil companies.

    This seems like even more of a good reason to strongly pursue the use of alternatives.
  4. Jun 25, 2008 #3
    I am curious as to why nuclear power is, as you say, ruined?
    Granted, it would take a lot of time and money, but couldn't we build new plants?
    From what I've read, nuclear technology has come a long way since we build all ours.

    What about solar energy? I hear a lot of hubbub about solar in the news.
    I wonder how much money/time/area it would take to build enough solar power plants to displace coal and oil?
    Surely, solar is a truly independent energy source, right?
  5. Jun 25, 2008 #4
    Good intentions pave the road to hell.

    The British did not wake up one day and say gee, we ought to use coal for no obvious reason. More like they found one day the supply of wood to be running low; with a supply shortage in effect, the British used coal first in home heating and then used coke from coal in the iron industry.

    Necessity is the mother of invention, not preference.
  6. Jun 25, 2008 #5


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    He has some good points.

    He's right about energy independence not reducing the cost of fuel in a capitalist country free to sell goods to anyone in the world.

    Energy independence would improve national security in that you can't be denied a product at any cost. Having a lot of different suppliers provides almost that same security level, though. You have to piss off the entire world to be denied a critical product (plus you have to lack products critical to the rest of the world).

    Increasing the diversity of products you import (oil and ethanol instead of just oil) increases your security because you've increased your number of suppliers (of course, you've also increased the number of people in third world countries that will die of malnutrition since you raised their food prices). Electric cars (where your electricity comes from hydro, nuclear, or coal) and ethanol all improve our energy security even if they don't provide energy independence.

    Ultimately, the only way to reduce the price of energy is to reduce the amount you use. You either need machines that make more efficient use of energy or reduce your lifestyle to a lower level requiring less energy to sustain.
  7. Jun 25, 2008 #6
    No, you can also come up with new, more efficient, cheaper sources of energy.
  8. Jun 25, 2008 #7


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    I cannot (alone) impact the global, or even local, price of energy, but I can impact the price of the energy that I use. I have a small 4-cyl pickup and drive only when necessary. My wife has a fuel-efficient 4-cyl car to commute to work. She consolidates trips and generally does all her shopping on the way home from work, and if she and her sisters want to shop for things that aren't locally available, they plan ahead and go together. I raise the majority of the vegetables we eat, and pay the cost of electricity for the two chest freezers, because it is a LOT cheaper than buying that food from a store. I planted rows closer together this year to maximize yield - so close that I leave my old Troy-Bilt tiller parked and weed by hand with a scuffle-hoe. I pick wild berries and freeze them and raise apples and freeze them, as well. If the weather cooperates, we should have a bumper-crop of grapes this year as well. We have an oil furnace, but burned probably less than 10 gallons of oil last year, setting the thermostat low for freeze-protection when we were to be away for a day. Heat is supplied by well-seasoned firewood, burned very hot in a small efficient wood stove - the house is small and well-insulated.

    Conservation and self-reliance can reduce our exposure to increases in fuel and food prices, but people have to be willing to make some changes. I have a good friend that wanted to build a modest home - planning ahead for retirement, but to preserve domestic tranquility, he had to settle for a much larger, more expensive house that his wife wanted. Another couple who are friends planned more intelligently, sold their big old "dream house" and bought a small, rustic place similar to ours. They have doubled the size of the previous garden spot, rebuilt the pig pens, and have refurbished the chicken coop for new poultry residents. I realize that not everybody lives in a rural or semi-rural area that can support such choices - that's not the point. We all make choices that impact our consumption of energy, and we can all take at least some steps to reduce consumption.
  9. Jun 25, 2008 #8


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  10. Jun 25, 2008 #9


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    Yes in that line he also states US total imports come from several dozen countries and actually exports some 1m g/d to several dozen countries. His point being that with all these interconnects no amount of local energy production (renewable or domestic drilling) can break them. I think that argument is weak, as oil is a fungible commodity. The price is driven by global supply and demand; it matters little where the supplies and users are located, other than some overhead for transportation. So in this case, I counter that if the US substantially grew its domestic energy sources (renewable or drill), it probably would still import and export to/from many places, but no longer out of desperation. The important point then would be that the US (and other importers) would have much more pricing power and would be much more immune to threats from OPEC states.
  11. Jun 25, 2008 #10
    That's your cost that you're impacting, not the price. Otherwise that sentence is self-contradictory.
  12. Jun 25, 2008 #11


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    quadrophonics, if you read the post, I'm exploiting price. Thanks to the move, I have shifted my heating from petrochemicals to wood, so I'm using a lower-priced fuel. Same with food. Some of the cost-reduction comes from conservation, and some comes from exploiting price differentials. I cannot change the price of gasoline, but I can conserve. I cannot change the price of heating oil or the prices of food in the supermarket, but I can choose alternate sources that are lower-priced.
  13. Jun 25, 2008 #12
    All of the actions you list DO change the prices in question. No, you aren't a big enough consumer to single-handedly dictate the global prices of commodities, but your consumption choices most certainly DO alter the prices of local goods and services.
  14. Jun 25, 2008 #13
    In the book, he mentions that in his opinion, a $1 billion reward should be put up for whoever can create a superbattery, a challenge that has eluded scientists and engineers since the creation of the battery. He says such a technology would make things like wind and solar power a lot more viable and and also would allow us to reduce dependence on fossil fuels a good deal.

    McCain right now is offering a $300 million reward for whoever can come up with a battery for an electric car I believe, which the idea of the battery I like, but the electric car I do not.

    Think about the strain on the power grid if we have 60 million electric cars plugged into it!
  15. Jun 25, 2008 #14
    We can have more powerplants. Even if they were to run on automobile gasoline, it would be better. Why? Because having a large plant would make it easier to keep clean and more efficient than thousands of beat up pickups driving around.

    That's not exactly what we are looking for, but I'm just saying that transitioning even now would be beneficial.
  16. Jun 25, 2008 #15


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    Its not just for cars, intermittent electric power like solar and wind also want energy storage. The reward might help a but I don't think any more incentive is necessary. If someone invents a dramatically improved battery they'll be become the next Donald Trump/Bill Gates overnight, no help needed from the government.

    Not a problem, the US grid has ample excess capacity at night to handle several million cars now; 60m E cars won't appear quickly even if the perfect battery discovered tomorrow.
  17. Jun 25, 2008 #16


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    Where's Ivan?

    Someone actually ran the numbers here at the forum on that the other day, and came up with a price tag of $15,000 for the average American automobile driver to install solar panels to take the load off the grid to solve this problem. For about the price of a cheezy new car, we could give the entire nation (not to mention emerging energy-hungry societies) energy independence. Establishing energy infrastructures on alternative foundations for fast growing economies like India and China can only make it that much easier for them to adapt to new energy paradigms.

    This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. America, relying solely on it own supplies, has 3 years worth of oil left. Hence the Manhattan Project-model urgency of developing alternative sources.
  18. Jun 26, 2008 #17


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    As it is one of my favorite discussion points, I'd like to point out that concerning nuclear power, if one switches to breeder reactors (the so-called 4th generation reactors), as they are about 100 times more efficient with uranium than current reactors, the problem of uranium supply is in principle solved: the current "waste" (including depleted uranium) still contains about 100 times more nuclear energy than was already extracted from it. So the currently stored "waste" is still good for centuries of energy. Time enough to see if we can get fusion working. I wonder what we will have first: a good battery, or fusion :smile:

    As to the $ 15 000,- solar panel to charge your electric car, I'm a bit surprised, but let's do the math. If we take $5,- per installed Watt, that's 3 KW installed, or about 500 W effective, which amounts to 12 KWhr a day. Now, 1 toe (ton oil equivalent) is 42 GJ. 12 KWhr is 0.4 GJ, so that panel set will generate the energy equivalent of 10 kg of oil/petrol/diesel.
    Of course, the petrol undergoes an energy efficiency of a thermal engine, but I take it that the battery charging and so on also have their efficiency toll, so indeed, $ 15 000, - of solar panels can take care of producing you the equivalent of about 10 liters of gas a day, or 3000 liters a year, so this installation paid itself back in about 4 years, all else equal.

    At about 40 W effective per square meter, we're talking about an installation of about 12 square meters, which would fit on the roof of a reasonable house.
  19. Jun 26, 2008 #18
    No, solar panels do not *produce* equivalents of energy. Panels convert between 12%(higher todays standard) - 40% (extremely sophisticated) of the solar energy into electric energy. At the world average of about 340 W/m2 solar energy, full time (that is without clouds) we're looking at 3.5 MJ per M-2 per day. Oil burns for about 40-50 MJ per Kg, however only about 30% of that can be converted to electrical energy so we would need about 4 m2 solar panels to have the equivalent electrical energy of 1 kg fossil fuel. So these numbers are a bit less it seems, apart from the clouds.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2008
  20. Jun 26, 2008 #19


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    Mmm. I see the problem, but I don't know where it comes from. I took 200 W per square meter year average solar power, and 20% efficiency, which gives me 40 W per square meter, which amounts to 3.5 MJ per day, about the same as you (you took higher insolation power and lower efficiency). 500 W effective then corresponds to about 12 times 40 W effective, so 12 square meter. 500 W effective gives you 12 KW hour a day, or 43 MJ... AAHH, I made a factor 10 error. I said that it was 0.4 GJ and it is 0.04 GJ, so not 10 kg, but only 1 kg of oil. So our solar panel of 12 square meter and $ 15 000, - only delivers a daily single kilogram of fuel. The daily commute mustn't be very far :-)

    I didn't factor in (on purpose) the 1/3 thermal fuel efficiency, as I assumed that there would be more or less equivalent losses on the solar-battery-electrical side.

    And the panel doesn't pay back in 4 years, but in 40 years, when it is already over the end of its life time. That is, at $ 5,- per installed watt, which is maybe a bit expensive - prices are somewhat lower now, but one should take into account of course also installation, electronics, ... and the price of the batteries.
  21. Jun 26, 2008 #20


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    Price/watt is coming down but $5/W is still a little low. Examples:
    -US Nellis AFB installation was $7/W ($100M/14MW)
    -Sunpower online calculator for home installation _starts_ at $8/W.
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