Some Summer (or Winter) Reading Ideas

The U.S. capital is built on a swamp. During August it certainly feels that way. Sweltering heat and humidity set in, and no seersucker suit or mint julep is a match for it. It’s a good excuse for politicians to get out of town for a break.

Perhaps you, too, get the chance to take a break from work this month. Enjoy it. And if you are looking for a good book or two, I’ve got some recommendations.

John Hofmeister is well known to many in the oil and gas industry as former head of Shell’s U.S. operations. Trained as a political scientist and then working at General Electric, Nortel and AlliedSignal before coming to Shell, his background is one of planning, preparation and pragmatism.

As president of Shell he frequently visited Washington, D.C., to speak with policy makers, testify on Capitol Hill and observe first-hand the uneasy relationship between the energy and political worlds. His testy exchange with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on her desire to see the U.S. oil and gas industry nationalized is a good example.

In the book’s best chapter he explores the differences between “political time” and “energy time.” The nature of the political cycle, with elections at two-, four- and six-year intervals, does not mesh well with the energy cycle, which requires planning decades in advance. This difference is a principal cause of the tension between the two worlds.

Another cause of tension is that planning, preparation and pragmatism – hallmarks of good business management – are not characteristics typically associated with U.S. policy-making. Instead politicians usually wait until disaster looms before taking action.

But you cannot do that with energy, Hofmeister warns, assuming the mantle of a modern-day Jeremiah.

As founder and president of Citizens for Affordable Energy, today he crisscrosses the country urging immediate action to proactively design our energy future – or suffer the consequences.

Despite describing himself as a “raging centrist,” Robert Bryce takes a less earnest tone tin his book. As an author and journalist – he is managing editor of the Energy Tribune – born and raised in Tulsa, Bryce has had a life-long fascination with the energy industry.

He is focused on data. His book is full of numbers, graphs and energy unit conversions, sometimes to distraction. But Bryce contends that the numbers tell the story of what is really happening in the energy sector, and that few people – including many self-styled energy experts – have bothered to look at them.

“Four imperatives” drive energy choices: power density, energy density, cost and scale. And the reason that we use fossil fuels and nuclear energy is because they meet these standards.

He devotes the middle of the book to how many energy technologies proposed to replace fossil fuels do not, and will likely never, achieve these requirements. It’s a list of popular choices, including wind, solar, biofuels, and carbon capture and sequestration. And while Bryce clearly relishes poking holes in the many energy and technology myths currently accepted as fact, he insists it is where the numbers take him.

What the numbers also show is that social and market forces already are driving the transition to a new energy future. And the transition is to cleaner, less carbon intensive fuels. It’s already happening, Bryce says, and the pathway is natural gas and nuclear energy.

Bryce is not opposed to renewable energy. In fact, both he and Hofmeister support a broad, inclusive portfolio of energy sources. But neither believe that renewables alone can deliver the affordable energy that consumers demand.

And that raises an important issue that receives short-shrift in today’s energy debate: Using energy is a good thing. Energy consumption is linked to economic development, which is linked to wealth creation.

Lifestyles in the developed world demand increasing amounts of energy, according to Hofmeister. “The Future is More, Not Less,” is the title of his first chapter.

We are not addicted to fossil fuels, Bryce argues. We’re addicted to prosperity. And helping less developed countries raise their standards of living requires access to reliable and affordable energy. We need to do this.

But how do we get to this energy future? What is the path?

Hofmeister stumbles here. As an executive he sees the solution in careful planning, preparation and pragmatism – the way you’d tackle a business problem.

He observes that the energy industry in the United States is highly regulated, so you cannot simply rely on market signals to achieve societal goals. He also contends that government is “broken” – and yet argues for the creation of a new independent government agency, modeled after the Federal Reserve, to provide the planning and coordination of the nation’s energy security and environmental protection.

Bryce acknowledges the role of government in the energy sector, and doesn’t downplay the difficulty of reaching consensus – but he does not recommend a broad restructuring of government. Instead he suggests policies to incentivize natural gas and nuclear power development and use, U.S. oil and gas development, energy efficiency, and renewable energy and energy storage technologies.

Concern about our energy future is not misplaced. A lack of coordination and foolish policy choices could make this transition a convulsive, uncomfortable experience. But if we are able to engineer a smooth transition in coming decades, it will be because of increased public awareness and understanding of the issues.

No book on energy can be truly comprehensive and readable. But these books both contribute to the discussion. Read them and pass them along to a friend or neighbor.

Bryce summarizes his personal energy policy very simply: “I’m in favor of air conditioning and cold beer.”

That sounds like a sensible way to not just endure but enjoy these dog days of summer.

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Suggested Reading ...

No book on energy can be truly comprehensive and readable. But these books both contribute to the discussion.

Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk From An Energy Insider, by John Hofmeister. Palgrave Macmillan; 249 pages; $27.

Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, by Robert Bryce. Public Affairs; 394 pages; $27.95.

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