The Eco-Heretic

I’m tempted to tease Robert Bryce about his timing: This book praising oil was published just weeks before the most catastrophic oil spill in history. But judging by public reaction, he may have nailed the zeitgeist. Though Americans are angry at BP, there seems to be little appetite for banning offshore drilling, much less one for moving toward a clean-energy economy.

The more we suffer from fossil-fuel addiction, the more resigned we become to our dependence. Like tortured animals, our relationship to hydrocarbons is learned helplessness. Oil is our master (along with coal, natural gas and nuclear energy). We cannot escape—or so defenders of the status quo tell us.

In Power Hungry, Bryce forcefully, stridently but unconvincingly pooh-poohs renewable energy sources like wind and solar as “feel-good chatter,” lies peddled by politicians and disingenuous environmental groups to an American public “woefully ignorant about science and math.” The future, he argues, will look like the present—only more so. More coal, more natural gas, more oil and more nuclear energy. Fossil fuels are too entrenched to be displaced by “green” power in the foreseeable future. (Bryce liberally deploys quotation marks around the word.) The planet’s insatiable energy needs can be met only with cheap, abundant, reliable sources.

Bryce acknowledges some of the harm done by his favorite fuels, but he thinks the price is worth it. Coal, for example, is a major contributor to urban smog, acid rain, mercury contamination, the wholesale destruction of mountains in Appalachia, and climate change. Bryce concedes as much, but writes that “those ‘external’ costs, large though they may be, have become an accepted part of the tradeoff.” Bryce is particularly fond of another energy source; did you know that “nuclear power is beyond green”?

Power Hungry suffers from an overabundance of contrarianism. Having shredded the myth of “energy independence” in his previous book, Gusher of Lies, and having shown in this one that the corn-ethanol scam is a government giveaway to agribusiness, Bryce makes bizarre arguments to serve his other new myth-busting tasks.

“The world,” he writes, “isn’t using too much oil. It’s not using enough.” Carried away, Bryce argues that oil “should be seen as an essential ingredient in the effort to save the world’s most endangered animals as well as huge swaths of tropical forests.” Why? Because if poor people get access to oil, they’ll stop chopping down trees for cooking and heating.

Bryce has taken an interesting path to such “heresies,” as he calls them. A veteran Texas journalist and former Observer contributing writer, he got his start at the Austin Chronicle as an environmental reporter. He covered the city’s tumultuous green politics and the even zanier goings-on at the Texas Legislature. His first book, Pipe Dreams, published in 2004, masterfully retold the rise and fall of Enron. His next book, 2004’s Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate, was a savage attack on Texas’ politicians and their coziness with the energy bidness. Six years later, Bryce is managing editor of the Energy Tribune, an online trade journal that’s heavy on industry cheerleading. He’s also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank that’s partially funded by corporations, including ExxonMobil Corp. He’s gone from bashing crony capitalism in the oil business to warning Congress, in a late chapter of Power Hungry, not to eliminate tax loopholes for oil and gas producers.

In an author’s note, Bryce writes that he “believe[s] in the relentless application of logic to our discourse on energy, power, and the future.” He accuses others of ignoring “logic and common sense as well as hard facts and figures.” Indeed, Power Hungry is loaded with charts, statistics and footnotes, but some of it doesn’t wash. Bryce, for example, tries to prove that wind power consumes enormous amounts of land relative to nuclear power. He does so by including all the land on a typical wind farm rather than the actual footprint of a turbine, which is much smaller. By my calculation, his math is off by a factor of around 300.

Bryce relies on skewed research and fuzzy math as he tries to prove that wind farms do nothing to displace dirty-fuel power plants or reduce carbon emissions. As a grand example, he takes on Denmark’s successful wind-power sector, asserting that it has had minimal effect on carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, the amount of CO2 produced by Denmark’s electricity sector has dropped by nearly a quarter since 1990, even as the economy has grown.

Worse, Bryce lends aid and comfort to some tinfoil ideas. He cites something called “wind turbine syndrome”—the theory that low-frequency sounds from turbine blades make people sick. No matter that there is no peer-reviewed research documenting the effect.

The bottom drops out of this book with Bryce’s cynical treatment of climate science. He writes: “My position on the science of global warming and climate change: I don’t know who’s right. And I don’t really care.” Later, he writes that his position is “one of resolute agnosticism.” For somebody who claims to follow the facts, this is remarkably flippant. The science couldn’t be clearer: The combustion of fossil fuels is concentrating greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and wrecking the planet’s climate. Bryce must dismiss this reality to defend fossil-fuel consumption.

In a later chapter, he argues that America will never make drastic reductions in carbon emissions because “Americans are not willing to change their lifestyle.” Bryce glibly suggests that the world’s poor will just have to adjust to climate change. “[I]t may mean relocating large swaths of the population away from areas most affected by the symptoms of global warming,” he writes.

That the global poor are already paying the price for rich nations’ inaction on greenhouse emissions seems lost on Bryce. In this summer of malcontent, we saw an unprecedented killer heat wave in Russia that killed thousands and shaved nearly a percentage point from its GDP; catastrophic flooding in Pakistan that has displaced at least 1 million people; and global temperature records putting 2010 on track to be the hottest in recorded history. These are signs of what’s to come in a world of unconstrained carbon.

The most compelling part of Power Hungry is Bryce’s documentation of how slow and difficult energy transitions are. The American economy does float on an ocean of fossil fuels. Changing that will require extraordinary effort. But the alternative is to consign the world to a nasty, brutish future.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 5:54 pm CST