Yesterday, I reviewed the book, Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis
by Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson. The excerpt below gives a taste of the types of issues discussed in the book and provides some information worth knowing. But it’s just a sampling. I recommend reading Who Turned Out the Lights? along with other resources that give a fuller environmental picture. If you read the book, please tell us what you think.
As you’ll see if you scroll down to the authors’ bios below, Bittle and Johnson are key figures at PublicAgenda.org. Public Agenda describes itself as “an innovative public opinion research and public engagement organization, works to strengthen our democracy’s capacity to tackle tough public policy issues.” It’s “nonpartisan and nonprofit.” — Joe Hennager
The energy issue is very confusing, and frankly, most of us will never catch up with the experts on all the details. Still, there are some basic facts that are good to know. Do you know them?
Not true. The accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island left lots of people worried about nuclear plant safety, but if you’re worried about climate change, nuclear power is one of the least dangerous forms of energy we have. Generating electricity from nuclear power releases virtually no carbon dioxide (the major green house gas) into the atmosphere, and it doesn’t cause air pollution either.28
Small amounts are emitted during mining and processing the uranium (you need uranium for nuclear power) and in other related activities, but it’s nearly impossible to do anything from start to finish without releasing some green house gases. Experts say the carbon dioxide released in these associated activities puts nuclear power roughly on a par with wind or hydroelectric power.29
Like every form of energy we’ve discovered so far, nuclear power does have drawbacks, but global warming isn’t one of them. The big drawback to nuclear power is that the leftover waste, the spent fuel, has to be stored very, very carefully, and it lasts a really, really long time. Even so, nuclear power is widely used in Europe and Japan, and despite the controversies about it, it supplies 19 percent of electricity in the United States — enough electricity to keep air conditioners, TiVos, and iPods going in California, New York, and Texas.30
Scientists are working on other ways to dispose of nuclear waste, including recycling it into the nuclear power plant itself, but the problem hasn’t been solved yet.31 See Chapter 9 for a more complete discussion of the pros and cons of relying more on nuclear power, including the safety issues.
True or false? ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron control nearly half of the world’s known oil reserves.
Not even close. In fact, none of the big multinational oil companies we complain about so often even makes the top ten list. So who’s controlling the lion’s share of the world’s oil reserves?
The national oil company of Saudi Arabia (Saudi Aramco) has the most oil reserves, followed by the national companies of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Venezuela, Libya, Nigeria, China, and Lukoil, the largest oil company in Russia. ExxonMobil comes in at number 13, BP at 15, and Chevron/Texaco at number 20.32
Congress likes to have the corporate heads of the major oil companies appear in hearings so our elected representatives can have their fifteen minutes of fame asking tough questions about gas prices, but in many ways, the big multinationals such as ExxonMobil have much less control over the country’s oil situation than they once did.
Which country is guiltiest when it comes to releasing green house gases into the atmosphere, the United States or China?
It’s a trick question because, frankly, the United States and China are running neck and neck for worst greenhouse gas polluter in the world.33
There are several ways to look at this, and none of them exactly puts the United States in the clear. Global warming is caused by the accumulated green house gases in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide and its brethren). Since the United States got a head start (we started using large quantities of coal about the time of the Civil War), our country alone is responsible for about 29 percent of the total accumulated gases, compared to just 8 percent for China.34
Then there’s the per person measure. In 2005, each American gushed out about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared to about 5 metric tons for each person in China.35
But China has a billion more people than we do, and they are building and manufacturing and transporting like crazy there now. If the average Chinese person begins emitting greenhouses gases at the same rate as the average American, it will just wallop the environment. As of now, China is producing about 21 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.36
Bottom line? The United States and China need to stop pointing fingers at each other. Both our countries really need to get with the plan.
Who sets the price for a barrel of crude oil?
B. Oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco
C. The U.S. Department of Energy
D. The New York Stock Exchange
E. None of the above
The answer is none of the above. The price is actually set by bidding, buying, and selling on major commodities trading exchanges in New York, London, and Singapore.37
These are different from the stock market, but they operate in a similar way. Basically, traders buy and sell all day at the best price they can get, which is why the price for a barrel of oil goes up and down so much and generally changes daily.38
That doesn’t mean that OPEC and other oil producers have no impact on prices. As OPEC itself puts it, member countries “do voluntary restrain their crude oil production in order to stabilize the oil market and avoid harmful and unnecessary price fluctuations.”39 In other words, they calculate how much they’re willing to pump based on the price they want to get.
One of the disputes about oil that erupts from time to time is the degree to which the OPEC countries are producing as much as they can or whether they are holding back. (You can read more about what affects the price of oil in Chapter 6.) On the other hand, since the oil is theirs to extract and sell, it’s also fair to ask whether, from their point of view, they should produce as much as they can as quickly as they can, or whether they want to preserve some of their countries’ natural resources for the future.
What percent of the world’s known oil and natural gas reserves are in the United States?
A. About 20 percent
B. 10 to 20 percent
C. 5 to 10 percent
D. Less than 5 percent
In area, the United States is the world’s third-largest country; only Russia and Canada have more territory than we do.40 Unfortunately that doesn’t mean we control a substantial share of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves.
According to 2008 estimates, the United States has about 2.4 percent of known world oil reserves and about 3.6 percent of natural gas reserves.41 These are figures for the “known” or “proved” reserves — that is, geologists actually know the stuff is there — so more exploration could definitely up those numbers a tad.
However, as we mentioned earlier, many experts believe that the remaining U.S. supplies of both oil and natural gas are in less convenient places and less convenient forms (such as tar pits). That means they’ll be costlier to extract. Just to make your day, would you like to know that Iran, which is tiny in comparison with the United States, has more than four times as much oil42 and natural gas as we have?43
True or false? As long as global warming doesn’t increase world temperatures more than 5 or 10 degrees, the effects will be easily manageable.
Not according to the climatologists who worry about global warming. In 2007, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summed up the judgment of scientists worldwide predicting that average global temperatures will rise 3.5 to 8 degrees by the year 2100.44
It sounds minor. After all, most of us would be hard pressed to say whether the temperature was 70, 75, or 80 on a nice spring day. But sustained changes like this over time cause glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. People living near water, especially poor ones in poor countries, can be displaced, and miserable, disease-carrying microbes can flourish. It changes what crops you can grow where, which can cause serious economic and social upheaval.
In 2008, the U.S. government released a report summing up the scientific consensus on what climate change could mean here in the United States.45 Among the conclusions: it is “very likely” that “abnormally hot days and nights and heat waves” will be more frequent, increasing the number of people who die from heat-related causes, especially the elderly, frail, and poor.
The report warned that “climate change can also make it possible for animal-, water-, and food-borne diseases to spread or emerge in areas where they had been limited or had not existed.” Lyme disease and West Nile virus are two examples mentioned.46
As we said before, there are a lot of good reasons to revamp the country’s energy policies, and global warming is only one of them. But if you’d like to see exactly what the scientists are worried about, you might want to check out NASA’s “Eyes on the Earth” interactive global time line showing the changes in sea levels and the polar ice cap that scientists are already observing. It’s at www.nasa.gov/multimedia/mmgallery/index.html.
28 EIA Kids Page, “Nuclear Energy (Uranium), Energy from Atoms.”
29 International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear Power Worldwide: Status and Outlook,” State News Service, September11, 2008.
30 EIA Kids Page. “Nuclear Energy (Uranium), Energy from Atoms.”
31 See, for example, Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.
32 Based on an analysis by Pricewaterhouse Coopers presented at the 2005 Global Energy, Utilities and Mining Conference, November 16-17, 2005. This Analysis and others are available at the Energy information Administration’s Web page “Energy-in-Brief: Who Are the Major Players Supplying the World Oil Market?” accessed April 2, 2009.
36 EIA, Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Report: U.S. Emissions in a Global Perspective, Report #DOE/EIA-0573, December 3, 2008.
40 CIA, The World Factbook 2008
44 See, for example, www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/science/earth/02cnd-climate.html.
45 National Science and Technology Council. Scientific Assessment of the Effects of Global Change on the United States, Report of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resource, May 29, 2008.
46 Andrew C. Revkin, “Under Pressure, White House Issues Climate Change Report,” New York Times, May 30, 2008.
Excerpted from Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis. Copyright © 2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson
Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.
Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of PublicAgenda.org, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.
November 4, 2009 by Joe Hennager
Filed under Blog, Books, Books & Media, Coal, Energy, Environment, Front Page, Greenhouse Gases, Natural Resources, Nuclear Power, Oil, Pollution, Renewable Energy, Slideshow, Solar, U.S., Wind
Blue Planet Green Living received an uncorrected, proof edition of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guide to the Energy Crisis, by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson. We were asked if we’d like to review it, and that is what this post is about. In tomorrow’s post, watch for “The Great Energy Debate Pop Quiz” by Bittle and Johnson. — Publisher
Since beginning work on Blue Planet Green Living, I have made it my personal goal to gather as much information about the environment as my brain can handle, to read as much as I can get my hands on. I’m not particularly selective of the topics, but consume whatever crosses my path, defining my area of knowledge by whatever Destiny and my computer provide me. The task of keeping up with this data flow is daunting. Perhaps you feel the same.
Being an environmentalist means I have to choose from a million aspects of concern, direction, and interest. Planet Earth is facing a flood of problems, too many for one writer to assimilate, even for one magazine. For me, there is too little time to read about all the daily assaults on our planet, let alone verify the data in print; seek out authorities on the subject; interview them; type, edit, and post their points of view.
Being a journalist, as well, compounds the problem. Now, it is just as important to seek the opposing opinions and compare conflicting scientific data. Every topic has many angles, often many points of view, and frequently, two polar-opposite conclusions.
The fact that I try to keep an open mind on these issues is exactly why I like this book. The writers, Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, have tried to present both sides of every energy issue, or at least, remain neutral in their presentation. The book gives “just the facts,” not opinions, and provides extensive end notes for the reader to verify all sources.
The following excerpt from the preface confirms the generally even-handed nature of the discussion the authors present:
For many of us, the nation’s energy debate has become an incomprehensible jumble, so the purpose of Who Turned Out the Lights? is to stop, take a deep breath, back up a bit, and go back to basics. we’ve written this book because we’re convinced that there are millions of Americans who are concerned about the energy issue and want to understand it better. Our aim is [to] explain the nuts and bolts in plain, solid, nonscientific, nontechnical English. We also believe that increasing numbers of Americans recognize that the country simply has to stop arguing about energy and start doing something about it. Our plan is to describe the chief options as understandably as we can and summarize different points of view about them. We’re not recommending solutions here. instead, we’re trying to offer enough perspective, context, and information so readers can stop relying on Hollywood stars and pundits for direction. We want to help you decide for yourself what path the United States should take.
The book tackles the single largest pollution source that exists today: energy. Whether it is for industrial, commercial, transportation or residential use, the production of the fuels, or the use of them, this book presents the many effects that carbon-based fuel is having on our country and our planet.
Topics discussed include positives and negatives about the use of —
• coal: e.g., “On the positive side, coal is affordable, reliable, and the U.S. has plenty of it,” (Let me interject here that the good folks at Appalachian Voices dispute all three of these claims); but, “Burning coal produces sulfur and nitrogen oxide — chemicals that create smog and acid rain.”
• nuclear energy: e.g., “nuclear power is the hands-down winner when it comes to generating electricity without adding to global warming”; but, “some [nuclear waste] is so hazardous that it needs to be isolated for ten thousand to one million years”;
• renewable energy: e.g., “Both wind and solar have two huge advantages … they don’t produce any greenhouse gases… [and] we’re not likely to run out of wind or sunshine anytime soon”; but, “even though you don’t have to pay for the ‘fuel,’ the initial capital costs are higher than coal or natural gas when they’re spread out over the life of the plant”);
• oil: e.g., “Oil is also amazingly portable… efficient…[and] works so well that it’s knocked all the transportation alternatives out of the box”; but, “since we’re not making any more dinosaurs, we’re not creating any more oil. So at some point we’re going to run out.” Though briefly mentioned earlier in the book, I note here a giant omission in the chapter dedicated to oil: nary a drop of ink was spilled talking about the release of greenhouse gases from burning oil.
• and cars, homes, and more …
All of these are energy topics, and they all affect our environment.
In the chapter called “Flawed Ideas,” the writers discuss the possibility that, as a nation, we might not want to become completely energy independent. First of all, it is not possible, since even if we opened up all the potential oil fields, we would only produce 40% of what we are presently consuming. Second, we are not at war with Canada and Mexico, the two largest suppliers of our oil. Finally, if we produced all our own oil, this would eliminate competition, and prices would rise. Competition has its place.
One of the more interesting topics, in my opinion, was the discussion about the dollar amounts spent by lobbyists on both sides of the energy debate in 2008. The oil and natural gas industries spent $129 million to influence legislators, coal spent more than $100 million, the utility companies spent $157 million, while the total spent by all U.S. environmental groups was only $17 million. The writers did not complain or push for more environmental influence, they simply said, “That’s part and parcel of the way our democracy works.”
Here is how the writers describe their book in the section titled, “Pulling the Strands of the Problem Together”:
The first step is to pull the far-flung pieces of this debate together in one place. There’s the energy issue with its assorted disputes over OPEC, oil company profits, speculation in energy markets, and how to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. Then there’s the environmental debate on how to reduce the damage human beings do to the planet — global warming, carbon dioxide emissions, carbon footprints, pollution, that sort of thing. And finally, there is the economic fallout when the competition for energy heats up and supplies start getting tight….
Although there’s much to recommend about this book, in my view, more attention could have been paid to the environmental effects of our choices of energy production. Where is the discussion of the environmental and health costs — not to mention the loss of natural beauty — of blowing up mountains to mine coal? Where is their concern for the horrible air pollution and health effects of mining the Tar Sands? What about the environmental costs of making the batteries that go into Priuses (and, yes, my wife and I drive Priuses)? These are just a few of the issues that troubled me by their absence.
Still, Who Turned Out the Lights? left me with a clearer view of the energy corner we are backing ourselves into. It’s well worth reading as a starting point, but don’t stop there. Check out some of the great environmental resources (like Appalachian Voices) to get a fuller picture.
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We don’t do it often, but here is an article that came to our inbox along with a press release. We liked it so much that we decided to share it. We will be reviewing Bittle and Johnson’s book at another time. — Publisher
In the hit TV series, NCIS, Navy investigator Tony DiNozzo, has a habit of finding a movie analogy for nearly every case his team handles. Sometimes it falls flat, since not everybody’s seen the movie in question.
Thinking about things that are new and unfamiliar by comparing them to things most people already know is a time-honored way of coping with a complicated world. In some respects, it’s one of pop culture’s greatest benefits: providing a shorthand frame of reference. When President Obama compared being chief executive to being a contestant on American Idol “except that everyone is Simon Cowell,” we all knew what he meant.
But we like Tony’s take on the world, and our concern is America’s energy problem. So here’s how some famous films shed light on the country’s energy problems. As far as we’re concerned, four movies tell the story.
The way we get and use energy now poses two big dangers. One is that we’ll destroy Earth as we know it by continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the air, causing global warming. There’s a whole host of stupid-and-greedy-humans-destroy-the-Earth movies, but we feel a moral obligation not to recommend anything that’s actually bad, even if it makes the point. (Sorry, Waterworld.)
So we’ve chosen the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green. Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his last film role) play two cops in a future where New Yorkers are starving in a polluted, corrupt, broiling hot city. A few rich people live well enough amid the environmental disaster, but most people survive by eating “soylent green,” a substance that . . . well, we can’t tell you what it is without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say that nutritional labeling rules must have been dramatically relaxed.
At one point, the older Robinson talks about how the stores used to be full of food, and you could pick apples off trees. “I know, Sol, you’ve told me a hundred times before,” Heston says. “People were better, the world was better. . . .” Robinson shakes his head. “People were always rotten,” he answers, “but the world was beautiful.”
Soylent Green imagines what the human costs of environmental disaster might be. It sums up the fear that basic human decency itself wouldn’t survive the strains of climate change.
The other big energy danger is that, because we import so much oil and rely mainly on fossil fuels which won’t last forever, the United States might not be able to get the energy it needs. The Mad Max trilogy is the way to go here. (We nominate The Road Warrior as the best of the three.)
Sometime in the future, oil is in very short supply (for reasons that are never fully explained), and Mel Gibson wanders through the Australian outback, where society is coming apart at the seams in the struggle for fuel.
In the first movie, the police and hospitals are functioning, but just barely. By the second and third films, small bands of people living in ever-stranger social orders barricade themselves inside refineries, holding off ruthless biker gangs dressed like 1980s hair bands, only far more vicious. This is the worst-case scenario — a lurid, pop culture version of “peak oil,” the idea that the end of the petroleum age may be near.
Whether peak oil is near or not, energy experts agree that the whole world is going to be scrambling to meet oil demand as people in China and India finally start buying cars and catching up with our standard of living. Mad Max sums up the fear that running out of energy means running out of civilization as well.
The third movie in our energy film fest is Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray is doomed to relive the same small-town holiday over and over again. To us, this pretty much sums up our country’s history of dealing with its energy problems.
Every so often, oil and gas prices shoot up. Voters get upset. Politicians say we absolutely, positively need to change the way we get and use energy. We make a few adjustments here and there — both in the country’s overall policies and in our own personal habits.
Then a couple of years later, we go back to our same old ways. At least Bill Murray changed his line of attack after hearing Sonny and Cher sing “I Got You Babe” on his radio alarm for the umpteenth time.
So far, not so good, when it comes to U.S. energy policy. Still, we do seem to be able to get our act together when we have to. For all the pain and angst involved, the gasoline price spikes of 2008 showed again what people can do when they see a reason to do it. Americans cut their driving, switched to hybrids, and found all kinds of new energy alternatives.
That’s why we keep coming back to a different kind of movie: Apollo 13. Based on the actual events in 1970, it tells the story of the Apollo 13 moon mission, which had to be aborted when an oxygen tank exploded in space. This is a movie about problem solving, and while the astronauts are gallant, the real heroes are the NASA engineers on the ground — classic Sixties engineers with buzz cuts and horn-rimmed glasses.
In one sequence, Gary Sinise, playing one of the astronauts left behind, sits in the Apollo simulator trying to figure out how to bring the spacecraft home on the paltry amount of electricity left in the batteries, barely enough to run a coffeepot. He tries dozens of things dozens of times, but he eventually comes up with a plan that ekes out enough voltage to get the ship home. Directing the operation is mission control chief Gene Krantz, played by Ed Harris, who won’t let the engineers and scientists fall into recriminations and rivalry. “Let’s work the problem, people!” Harris urges.
The people who brought the Apollo 13 spacecraft back to Earth faced a terrifying emergency, but they didn’t allow themselves to become immobilized because they were confused. They looked over their choices and did the best they could with what they had. In the end, they brought the crew back to Earth safely.
To be fair, Tony and the NCIS team aren’t such bad models either. They don’t have a lot in common; there’s a former Marine gunnery sergeant, a Goth forensic scientist, an erudite Scottish pathologist. They squabble; Tony seems like a lazy, overgrown frat boy much of the time. But when they have to solve a case, they put their differences aside and get to work.
And that’s the issue for the United States right now: Can we stop squabbling, get off our duffs, and start to work the problem, people?
©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis
Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is an award-winning journalist, and executive editor of Public Agenda Online, a public affairs site twice nominated for the prestigious Webby Award.
Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive vice president of Public Agenda and a founder of the Web site. She has written on public opinion and current issues for dozens of publications ranging from Education Week to USA Today.
For more information please visit www.publicagenda.org.
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