The Oil and the Glory

How to puncture the shifting conventional wisdoms of energy

How to puncture the shifting conventional wisdoms of energy

Last summer, a galactic cluster of energy experts informed us that the U.S. economy was failing to reignite in part because the Obama Administration was barring sufficient oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Just three months later, the same experts say the U.S. is awash in domestic oil, and perhaps on the verge of independence from foreign oil. Serious journalists in Europe and the U.S. are sold on this ostensible shift, with all the geopolitical ramifications.

But what has changed? Not the fundamental numbers — drillers were not oil-poor in August, only to be swimming in hundreds of thousands of barrels more of crude today. Instead, one suspects that politics are partly responsible for both the old and the new conventional wisdoms.  As Rachel Leven writes at The Hill, 33 lobbying firms are swarming Washington alone to persuade decision- and opinion-makers on the critical importance — or trifling unimportance — of energy independence, in this case as represented by the question of whether to build a pipeline to Canada’s oil sands.

In other words, folks with skin in the game are leading the innocent among us to conflate "the fortunes of the oil industry with those of the international system," Michael Levi suggests on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations. Last summer, it suited industry consultants to assert that the sky was falling, while now it is best to give hope for the achievement of a four-decade-old vapidity — that the U.S. is best off importing no oil. Is it also best for China to import no oil — is it hostage to Middle East volatility?

Other new conventional wisdoms are being road-tested as well. For instance, for a long time Americans have been led to worry that China is going to eat their lunch when it comes to jobs and economic wealth. Now, a spate of high-profile pieces suggest that Chinese innovation actually is good for the declining West.

When it comes to clean-energy innovation such as wind, solar and clean-coal technology, China’s eager embrace of potential breakthroughs ushers in "commercial development of innovations that otherwise might never make it out of labs in the West," reports the Wall Street Journal’s Brian Spegele. He writes: "Proponents of collaboration argue that commercializing nascent technology in China ultimately creates U.S. jobs by bringing burgeoning technologies to market more quickly." Americans — not to mention Germans, Japanese and others — thus can feel better about losing their last bastion of dominance, meaning the laboratory.

Finally we get the confusing story of battery-powered cars. In the latest version of its widely read long-range outlook, ExxonMobil suggests that progress toward producing cheaper and more powerful batteries is going so slow that no one should expect any appreciable advances by 2040.

Such pessimism might grate on a populace raised on the testosterone-driven, can-do spirit of the age of the Manhattan and Apollo projects, who might be tempted to ask whether it is truly possible for the U.S., China, Germany (pictured above, BMW plug-in hybrid), Japan and South Korea to spend three decades in the laboratory and shave off no manufacturing cost, nor extend the range of an electric car at all.

The answer to both questions is no. Exxon would be credible if it forecast that electric cars will fail to match the economies of gasoline-driven vehicles. But that isn’t what it says. Instead, an interested party — in this case Exxon — again delivers a message that happens to align with its bottom line.