Illusions About Energy

United States Mineral Resources

US Geological Survey, Professional Paper No. 820
US Government Printing Office, $9.50

US Energy Outlook

National Petroleum Council (1625 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20006)
Summary Report, $6.50 (paper)

The Potential for Energy Conservation

Office of Emergency Preparedness (Executive Office of the President)
US Government Printing Office, $3.00

Alternative energy is, after inflation in oil prices and profits, the major subject of present “energy crisis” rhetoric. But new energy supplies may not provide the relief that they now seem to offer, although President Nixon promised, in June, in the latest version of his energy strategy, “intensive effort,” and $10 billion, for alternative energy development.

Coal, shale oil, Alaskan oil, and nuclear fuels will, according to the Administration’s policy scenario, prevent the “serfdom” of oil imports. Energy experts from Wall Street to the Iranian government, and from Mobil to groups in the environmental movement, eagerly endorse the development of domestic energy. The corporate search for a “clean” coal technology resembles a modern gold rush, while oil industry stock analysts find “enormous” potential in a “coal [stock] play.” Professor Carroll Wilson of MIT expressed this general enthusiasm when, writing in Foreign Affairs, he urged an emergency “Decade Program” of publicly financed coal and nuclear development. Coal expansion, he wrote, was “a big job, but no bigger than the Manhattan and Apollo projects,” and, “On the whole we do very well in dealing with national emergencies.”

A boom in coal and domestic fuel is certain in the next ten years. Unlike energy conservation, or negotiations with oil exporting countries, alternative energy development offers an opportunity for action, for government spending. Yet the unanimity with which this prospect is greeted conceals vast economic and political difficulties which the brisk optimism of, for example, Professor Wilson may not overcome. These difficulties may derive in fact from the basic tenet of present energy policy—a huge commitment to spend national resources on energy production and consumption.

One difficulty of official fuel policy has to do with the value of energy use. Current policy assumes that increased energy use is desirable, as well as inevitable. The confusion and alarm that surround energy policy are compounded by a figurative interpretation of the physicists’ definition of energy as “the capacity to do work.”^2 Yet national energy is distributed most unevenly among different uses, different fuels, different ways of doing economic work. Driving an automobile for three hours, for example, uses more purchased energy than operating a color television set for a year of normal viewing. Public support for increased energy use, as will be seen, favors certain energy-intensive industries. Energy consumption may not be an absolute good. It may, rather, be more like transportation than like progress—a good which depends on particular social and economic arrangements.

A second difficulty has to do with the extent to which energy policy encourages increased energy use. Government predictions about future energy demand have the force of self-fulfilling prophecy. By sponsoring long-term investment to meet expected needs, government policy will reinforce the existing pattern of energy demand. The commitment to provide for future demand will itself create extra demand. The commitment to provide fuels in a particular form will perpetuate demand for those fuels.

This is the same contradiction of government intervention that troubles, for example, transportation …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

Going Dutch October 18, 1973