The Great Energy Debate Pop Quiz

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Who controls most of the planet's oil resources? (It isn't Exxon or Shell.) Art: © -

Who controls most of the planet's oil resources? (It isn't Exxon or Chevron.) Art: © -

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 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?

True or false? When it comes to global warming and air pollution, nuclear power is one of the most dangerous forms of energy.

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

Nuclear power doesn't contribute much to greenhouse gases, though there are other serious issues to deal with. Photo: © danieldefotograaf -

Nuclear power doesn't contribute much to greenhouse gases, though there are other serious issues to deal with. Photo: © danieldefotograaf -

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

Which country (or countries) produces the most air pollution? Photo: © Ghost -

Which country (or countries) produces the most air pollution? Photo: © Ghost -

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

Many of the world's oil reserves are under the seas. (And offshore drilling has plenty of environmental issues.) Photo: © Alan Smillie -

Many of the world's oil reserves are under the seas. (And offshore drilling has plenty of environmental issues.) Photo: © Alan Smillie -

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

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.

33 EIA

34 World Resources Institute, Navigating the Number: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy.

35 EIA, “Frequently Asked Questions — Environment: How Much co2 Does the United States Emit? Is It More Than Other Countries?” updated August 14, 2008.

36 EIA, Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Report: U.S. Emissions in a Global Perspective, Report #DOE/EIA-0573, December 3, 2008.

37 OPEC, “Frequently Asked Questions: Does OPEC Set Crude Oil Prices?”


39 OPEC, “Frequently Asked Questions: Does OPEC Set Crude Oil Prices?”

40 CIA, The World Factbook 2008

41 BP, Statistical Review of World Energy, 2009.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 See, for example,

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

Author Bios

Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of, 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, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.