I tend to accumulate a lot of books – sent to me by publishers and publicists – and they pile up on my desk until I have to make a trip somewhere. Because it takes a long time to get from Hawaii to anywhere else, I always grab a book or two from my stack to keep myself occupied while in a plane or while waiting for one.
For my most recent trip, I grabbed Amanda Little’s book Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy. Little describes herself as an environmentalist who — up until writing this book — had “one major blind spot” in her understanding of energy:
“I also realized that this thing that I’d thought was a four-letter word (oil) was actually the source of many creature comforts I use and love – and many survival tools I need. It seemed almost miraculous. Never before had I grasped the immense versatility of fossil fuels on a personal level and their greater relevance in the economy at large.”
I was surprised that I had not come across her work before; she writes about topics that I am intensely interested in and has written for some sites that I read like Grist and Salon. But as far I know, this was the first time I had encountered any of her writing.
Little describes her energy epiphany near the beginning of the book. Her “aha moment” came during the 2003 blackout in the Northeastern part of the United States; the largest blackout in recorded history. Suddenly Little saw a city without electricity for an extended period of time, and the paralysis she witnessed in New York City in the wake of the blackout drove home a very important message: We are incredibly dependent on the fossil fuels so many people love to hate, and life would not be a bed of roses without them. I described Little’s energy epiphany in my previous essay Democrats and Energy Policy. (She also covers these themes in this Youtube video).
I understand the epiphany that Little underwent, because I had the same one many years ago. After my own epiphany, I didn’t consider myself any less of an environmentalist, but I more fully understood the broader implications of our use of fossil fuels. While there are undoubtedly downsides – in many cases potentially very serious downsides – I could not deny that fossil fuels have greatly improved the living conditions for many people.
I began to see that while campaigns to limit the usage of fossil fuels in our lives may seem like the environmentally responsible thing to do, there is no free lunch. What I seek to do now is make sure people understand the implications of what they are asking for. If we limit our ability to produce energy, there are three choices: 1). We simply have to cut back on our energy consumption; 2). We import more oil, pushing some of the environmental consequences from our shores to the shores of countries like Nigeria; 3. We replace our fossil fuel consumption with alternative energy. The problem with many environmentalists resides with the third option. We could only achieve that through sacrifices and difficult trade-offs that are generally unrecognized.
But I digress from Little’s story. Little went on a journey that reminded of that of Lisa Margonelli in Oil on the Brain. Their journeys were to different locations, but each journey forever changed the way the authors looked at energy, and particularly fossil fuels. Like me, they began to fully appreciate that fossil fuels make the modern world possible. While researching this book, Little spent two years traveling around the country to better understand America’s energy situation. She traveled to deep-sea oil rigs, Kansas cornfields, the Talladega Superspeedway, a plastic surgeon’s office, the Pentagon offices, a Texas wind farm, and underneath New York City for a look at their “third-world grid.”
Little began her story by taking us on a history of oil production in the United States. I confess that I don’t know all that much about John D. Rockefeller, but discussion of his role in the development of the oil industry fascinated me enough that I want to read his biography. But one thing that struck me is that so many people still believe this is the way the oil industry operates; that a small group colludes to fix prices and rip off the American people. That’s just not the way the world works anymore; at least not in the U.S. Because U.S. oil companies are so small relative to the national oil companies, the impact that U.S. oil companies can have on oil prices is small and fleeting. (OPEC and Russia, on the other hand, are a different story).
Little takes readers into a war zone in Iraq, where you quickly appreciate that the drivers of fuel convoys have some of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The journey again becomes historical, covering Churchill’s decision to switch the British fleet from coal to oil, the role oil played in the military actions of Germany and Japan in World War II, and the history of the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Using colorful and descriptive language that sometimes made me feel like I was reading Anne Rice, Little takes us to a NASCAR race, where she developed a sudden appreciation for why these races are so popular (why people watch car races or golf on TV still eludes me). She emphasizes the importance of oil in the production of plastics, something we often take for granted when we talk about our dependence for oil. She went through the history of Tupperware, which was interesting but wandered pretty far off-topic in my opinion.
She took us on a tour of the importance of fossil fuels in the global food supply chain. From the nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that enable record yields (her Kansas farmer said without fertilizer he might get 1/3rd of his present yield) to the trucks, trains, and ships that bring food from all over the world onto our plates — she found that fossil fuels enabled every step of the process. (However, she also pointed out that a 3G phone has even more oil embedded in it than bananas from Central America that are shipped to U.S. supermarkets; the 3G supply chain consumes 1.7 gallons of oil per phone!)
Inside the Pentagon, she learned that a $10 increase in the price of crude oil increases operating costs at the Department of Defense (DoD) by $1.4 billion dollars a year. She also learned that the world’s largest photovoltaic farm is on an air force base, and that the DoD — often criticized for their heavy use of petroleum — is also one of the world’s largest consumers of green power. She was told that 12% of DoD electricity derives from renewable sources.
In an L.A. plastic surgeon’s office, she learned of the importance of petroleum in making silicone breast implants, but also in producing syringes, blood bags, surgical gloves and numerous other items in the medical industry. As an aside, she pointed out that in 2006 the FDA had quietly dropped the moratorium on silicone breast implants, having found no link between these implants and autoimmune disorders. I still recall in the early 90’s when lawyers were taking out ads in newspapers everywhere, inviting women to sue over a perceived link between the implants and autoimmune disorders. While good science ultimately won out, some lawyers are pretty crafty at making a living around bad science. Hot gas, anyone?
Part 2: Greener Pastures
After going into some detail about the environmental downside of fossil fuels, Little provided a glimpse into the future in Part 2 of the book: Greener Pastures. And this is where I would fault the book. I think Little under-appreciates the challenges and implications of ultimately moving to a fossil fuel-free world. For instance, her first chapter in this section is subtitled “How Renewable Energy Will Dethrone the Powers That Be.” She takes us to Pampa, Texas (where I have been many times) — the site of T. Boone Pickens’ massive wind farm project. She wrote all about his grand vision. Readers are left with the impression of Pickens’ wind farm helping to “dethrone the powers that be.”
The postscript, however, is that the grand vision was much more challenging for Pickens to execute. Quoting one of the long-time skeptics of Pickens’ plan, Robert Bryce:
After 30 months, countless TV appearances, and $80 million spent on an extravagant PR campaign, T. Boone Pickens has finally admitted the obvious: The wind energy business isn’t a very good one.
The Dallas-based entrepreneur, who has relentlessly promoted his “Pickens Plan” since July 4, 2008, announced earlier this month that he’s abandoning the wind business to focus on natural gas.
Knowing how things turned out for Pickens, you might be just a wee bit more skeptical of her vision of how the future is going to play out. And I think many of the stories that Little covered — this greening of power in America — are likely to turn out the same way. Where she sees renewable energy technologies improving until they dethrone fossil fuels, I see fossil fuels becoming so expensive that renewables gradually become competitive. That’s a much different vision than the one she lays out in the book. (However, I should point out that she does support offshore drilling; undoubtedly a result of her energy epiphany giving her a better understanding of our energy predicament).
Little did cover a number of interesting developments in Part 2; some of which may ultimately make a big impact. One of the most interesting to me was her coverage of developments in green building. She discussed Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation, which is building 150 green homes in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina. She told the story of a new home owner whose energy bills had dropped from $500 a month to under $100 a month in her new home.
But Little also covered green building developments for commercial buildings. She said that globally, buildings account for 40% of all energy usage, and in the U.S. they consume 30% of all raw materials and produce 30% of our landfill waste. She covered the technologies and developments that are designed to drastically reduce those numbers with a visit to the Bank of America Tower in Manhattan — which received a platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council (but cost $1 billion to build).
As I read this book, I began to think of it as a layman’s guide to understanding the real role that energy plays in our lives. This book should be required reading for anyone who still believes that oil is a four letter word. It won’t necessarily change your mind about oil’s downsides, but you will certainly come away with a greater appreciation for the role it plays in your life. And even if you are well-informed on energy issues, there is still material in the book of interest.
I gauge a book by whether I learned something new and interesting, and whether I believe the book’s factual claims are generally correct. Power Trip passes on those counts. It is a book that I can easily recommend, especially for someone who is starting from a lower level of energy proficiency.