AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AMERICAN WRITER AND JOURNALIST ROBERT BRYCE
The Montreal Review, May, 2010
The Montreal Review: President Obama said last Thursday that the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico should act as a "wake-up call" for Senate to complete work on the Energy Bill. Do you think that the disaster in the Gulf would extremely influence our future consumer habits and the U.S. energy policy?
Robert Bryce: There will be short-term impacts on US energy policy that give more subsidies and mandates to alternatives and renewables. Wind energy, in particular, will be benefit, as will the corn ethanol scammers and possibly, the natural gas business. But over the long term the blowout will have a limited effect on the overall primary energy mix in the US or the rest of the world.
The blowout, as bad as it is, does not mean the world will quit using oil or coal, or natural gas. Hydrocarbons now provide 9 out of 10 units of energy that we consume. The transition away from those sources will be a decades long process, maybe even centuries long.
Our energy and power delivery systems are governed by basic physics and the tyranny of big numbers, not by political correctness or carbon content.
The Montreal Review: "The simple unavoidable truth is that we humans cannot, will not, quit using oil," you said in a recent article. Perhaps after the tragedy in the Gulf your "Socratic" scepticism about green energy would face stronger opposition. What are the realities and what are the solutions - how can we save the nature without harming the economy? Is the win-win game possible and to what extent?
Robert Bryce: I'm trying to look at the global energy picture as it is, not as I would like it to be. There are now about 1 billion motor vehicles worldwide. The US alone has about 10,000 commercial aircraft. All of them run on oil products. As for the solutions, there are no easy answers. There's no such thing as a free lunch and that's particularly true when it comes to our energy and power delivery systems. Can we have a smaller footprint? Yes, sure. But the question of how do we save nature without harming the economy has always been a central one. Any energy and power delivery system that can deliver the scale of energy needed by the 6.7 billion people on the planet will necessarily have an impact on nature. Global commercial energy use now totals 226 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. That's 27 Saudi Arabias. That energy use is taking a toll on the environment, but it's also allowing me to respond to your email, make breakfast, and take my kids sailing.
As I make clear in my new book, Power Hungry, hydrocarbons (coal, oil, and natural gas) are here to stay. But the fuels of the future are natural gas and nuclear. Increasing the use of both will align easily with three key megatrends that are underway around the world: decarbonization, urbanization, and electrification.
The Montreal Review: A few days after the oilrig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico you wrote about the risks of offshore drilling. It is clear that BP was unprepared for such a crisis, do you think that if this tragedy happened with another multinational oil company, their reaction would be better? How different is BP from the other multinationals?
Robert Bryce: BP's safety record is abysmal. And as more news reports about what happened on the Deepwater Horizon come out, the more it's clear that BP's decision making on this well was the clear culprit. One or two accidents is bad luck. The string of accidents -- fatal accidents -- that BP has had is indicative of some serious problems in their corporate culture. I wrote about BP's lousy safety record back in 2005. I cataloged the company's spate of accidents from 2004 to 2005 and wrote " BP should stop talking about going 'beyond petroleum.' It's clear that they can't handle the oil they have - much less lead us to something better."
I don't think this accident would have happened at Exxon. After the Exxon Valdez, Exxon went from being a middling operator to being the best in the business.
Amidst all the recriminations against BP, and I'm as happy to bash them as anybody else, people, particularly people on the Green/Left, forget that this calamity is absolutely terrible for BP's business. No company wants this kind of accident. It will cost BP tens of billions of dollars before this is over. It could, conceivably put them out of business.
The Montreal Review: You are among the most informed people about energy issues. I want to ask you, what are the energy threats of the 21st century?
Robert Bryce: The biggest threat I see is irrational fear. Going forward, we (and here I'm talking about the global "we") are going to have to accept the necessity of nuclear power. It is the only zero carbon source of energy and power that can provide the scale of power that we need. I'm with Stewart Brand on this issue. Read his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
He makes an excellent case for nuclear. His line, "We are as gods and have to get good at it," is right on the money. My take on nuclear is simple: if you are anti-carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout.
I also am a fan of Freeman Dyson. His piece Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society in Edge.org in 2007 on global warming forced me to change my thinking on the subject.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people on the Green/Left who have made their careers opposing nuclear power and they remain opposed despite the reality that nuclear must be a major part of any solution to our future energy and power needs.
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