The Myth of Energy Independence

Q&A with Robert Bryce, author of 'Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence'.


Workers in Iowa stand by a mound of distiller's grain, a byproduct of ethanol.


George W. Bush says he's for it. So do Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Nancy Pelosi. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama promise they'll work toward it. What has inspired all of this bipartisan enthusiasm? Energy independence, the notion that by turning to greener energy sources like ethanol and wind power, we can not only help the environment—and slow global warming—but create millions of new jobs and, most important, wall ourselves off from the murderous petro states of the Middle East.

If it all sounds too good to be true, that may be because it is, argues Robert Bryce in Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence, published this week. Bryce, managing editor of Energy Tribune magazine, lays out the case against the short-term viability of all of today's renewable energy darlings: ethanol, wind, and solar power. No matter what the pols say, he insists, for the foreseeable future, oil, coal, and natural gas are here to stay. U.S. News spoke with Bryce about fossil fuels, global warming—and the promises of politicians.

Where did this notion of energy "independence" come from?

Energy independence is not a new idea in American politics. Richard Nixon first started talking about it in 1974. The problem is it's no more feasible today than it was then. We live in an interdependent world, from jet fuel and gasoline to fresh flowers and iPods. In 2005, the U.S. imported crude oil from 41 countries. Virtually every cellphone and running shoe Americans use is imported. And yet, all the presidential candidates are touting the same line. In December, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The American people are simply being lied to. Energy independence is neither doable nor desirable. Why has it become so popular?

In my book, I cite a memo that was put out in 2006 by James Carville, the political strategist. He said energy independence is the one issue out there that gives people hope. It's a two-word phrase that trumps all these other issues, that gives people a sense that we can somehow address all their biggest fears—the Iraq war, peak oil, global warming, and terrorism—in one shot. But it is a false hope. Why?

The best analogy I've seen of this is one put forward by Fred Singer from the University of Virginia. He said the global oil market is like a giant bathtub. All the producers dump their oil in the bathtub and all the consumers pump their oil out of the same bathtub. And the level in the bathtub is the price. So yes, we could consume less oil by finding something else—we don't know what yet. But in the meantime, we're still going to be tapping into that same bathtub and paying that same price that the rest of the world's global consumers do. This idea that we can detach from this market is craziness. As long as the United States is buying oil, in other words, it will be vulnerable to political upheaval in the Middle East. But isn't it worth investing in alternative fuels now, so we can be more self-reliant later?

I suppose energy independence could be possible within a century, but that's not what we're being sold. We're being sold energy independence here and now. And that's just a lie. There's no polite way to put it. What is possible here and now?

We'll only find a replacement for fossil fuels if we can come up with something that's cheaper, cleaner, and more convenient. I'm all for renewables and alternatives. I think that's great. I have 3,200 watts of solar panels on my house in Austin. But I'm also very clear about the economics, and that is the challenge. How do we move to something else that's cheaper than what we're using now? I don't know the answer to that. What about ethanol?

Let me be clear. The corn ethanol scam is one of the longest-running robberies of American taxpayers in this country's history. We are making subsidized motor fuel out of the single-most subsidized crop in America. It's fiscal insanity. That's the only way to say it. It's causing dramatically higher food prices, worsening air quality, increasing consumption of water resources. Irony of ironies, there's increasing evidence, including a report in last month's Science magazine, that shows that greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol are higher than those from regular gasoline. Corn ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline.