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America's Upside Down Energy

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Most liberal Americans are disappointed with the Obama Administration, feeling that the “Yes We Can” dreams of 2008 have succumbed to partisan squabbles and White House compromise on every single issue. Michael Levi argues that on at least one issue of serious importance – energy – the Obama years have witnessed dramatic transformation, occurring with such rapidity that most of the citizenry hasn’t really noticed.

In The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future Levi details how the United States went from energy dependency to a near glut in diverse sources of energy to power our homes, factories, cars, and economy. Along the way his pragmatic, empirically-driven expiation tackles climate change concerns, solar and wind power, fracking, coal, global balances of power, U.S. petro-diplomacy, and the energy future of the planet. I suspect every reader that is not an energy specialist will frequently find themselves saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” while reading this well-constructed book. But those that come to the energy topic with strongly entrenched points of view, from climate change denial to the idea that the entire global fossil fuel tap must be turned off immediately to save the planet, will growl and mutter their ways through this short, fast-paced analysis.

Levi is a Canadian living in the United States, and working (as my colleague) at the Council on Foreign Relations. He deliberately approaches America’s energy future by rejecting all assumptions that have torn the country and its political leaders with debate. He focuses on the data.

In Levi’s analysis the data is clear: Climate change is occurring, driven by fossil fuel use. Alternative forms of energy do indeed work, though their value in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and costs vary dramatically. Classic 1990s arguments about America’s dependency on foreign oil and susceptibility to external manipulation no longer resonate with truth in 2014, though lack of veracity hasn’t stopped their espousal by political leaders and some large oil corporations. America’s hunger for energy must decrease – consumption is excessive. But decreased consumption cannot, by itself, arrest dangerous climate change trends.

Overall, Levi is an optimist, which is a bit startling given dire climate forecasts. But cynicism does not forge sound policy: Only the hopeful can create meaningful transformation.

The Obama years have seen a dramatic transformation, as the United States has shifted away from coal and oil from the Middle East, to natural gas, solar power, wind energy, and shale “tight oil” production. The use of coal to produce electricity plummeted by 25 percent by 2011, and has continued to fall, decreasing coal-based pollution and carbon dioxide (CO2), and driving coal-producing communities into economic tailspins. Renewable energy use has risen about 30 percent. “In the five years ending in 2011,” Levi writes, “U.S. oil consumption fell by three times as much as U.S. production rose,” and “fuel consumption could continue to dive over the coming decade. Combined with rising U.S. oil production, this is making the prospect that the United States will stop importing oil from outside North America more realistic…and it promises to put a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.”

The largest shift, of course, has been to natural gas, aggressively promoted by President Obama. Is it the answer? “It all depends on your emissions goal and on the time scale you’re thinking about,” Levi writes. Do you think 350 ppm CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere should be an absolute limit? If so, in late 2013, that figure was eclipsed by a Mauna Kea reading of 400 ppm. If you think Earth can tolerate 600 ppm CO2 you may actually oppose natural gas because it is taking jobs away from coal-producing West Virginia.

“If you’re a 350 boom-or-bust sort of person, only zero carbon emissions will do,” Levi says. “The difference between coal and gas is a distinction between shades of disaster. For everyone else, though, natural gas has the potential to play a strong and positive role.”

As I am not an energy specialist or economist I can’t quibble with the well-annotated details of Levi’s assessments of the costs and benefits of each individual energy source. He finds the environmental and actual costs of coal weigh heavily on the side of continuing to phase out its use. Biofuels only appear cost-effective, he argues, when the impact of using precious arable lands and waters to grow fuel, instead of food, are ignored. Moreover, biofuel production is heavily subsidized by the governments that advocate its use – removal of tax-payer subsidies erases most of the economic value. Tight oil from shale and natural gas can be expensive to extract, and have stiff environmental costs, but can nevertheless prove valuable in short term – as a bridge to a genuinely renewable energy future in the mid-twenty-first century.

Levi doesn’t dodge the social and environmental costs of hastily extracted gas and shale oil. He tiptoes around nuclear energy, underestimating in my opinion to long term nuclear waste disposal issue. But he is bullish on the twenty-to-thirty year horizon for mass scale implementation of solar and wind innovations. Solar energy, in particular, Levi believes holds genuine promise.

I was surprised that Levi didn’t tackle the essential grid infrastructure issue – a source of focus for billionaire T. Boone Pickens and his energy plan. Levi effectively dismisses Pickens’ old claim that American dependency on foreign oil is excessive and dangerous, showing it to be out of date by at least a decade and diplomatically unsound. But he doesn’t tackle Pickens’ claim that an improved American electrical grid could revolutionize consumption, efficiency and CO2 emission rates.

Image via National Grid

Image via National Grid

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has labeled it a, “Third World grid.” And advocates of disaster preparedness, including U.S. agencies, argue its sorry state is a threat to national security. The overall electrical infrastructure is woefully out of date, inefficient, and incapable of withstanding severe weather events. Some government officials and engineers insist the U.S. grid is on the edge of failure. Some argue that the greatest reduction in U.S. energy consumption could result from modernization of the electrical grid infrastructure, though in the current political environment it is hard to imagine Congress paying for such a thing.

But the power grid is simply one issue in a far larger landscape, which is aggressively analyzed in The Power Surge. The next time you find yourself in an argument about climate change, U.S. oil dependency, or fracking you will be glad that the facts and analysis from this book are loaded into your brain, ready for intellectual extraction.

The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, by Michael Levi, Oxford University Press, 2013.