Running on Empty

Line at a San Jose gas station, 1974. OPEC’s oil embargo slowed the American economy during the mid-1970s. (Associated Press)

Line at a San Jose gas station, 1974. OPEC’s oil embargo slowed the American economy during the mid-1970s. (Associated Press)

Scott L. Montgomery. The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-First Century and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 408 pp. $35.

Energy independence. A looming energy crunch. Imminent green revolution. Terms that have become prevalent in both progressive and populist circles in the last quarter century or so are now reexamined by geologist and independent scholar Scott L. Montgomery in this offering on energy and society. The result is a work by turns refreshing and obtuse. Take energy independence, an idea whose vogue in the United States waxes with gasoline price spikes and Middle East interventions. Not only would energy independence be imprudent, given the country’s thirst for energy, writes Montgomery; it is also unrealistic in the globalized oil economy of the 21st century. The oil embargo levied by the Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1973 was effective because these countries sold directly to other countries. A similar gambit today would fail because the oil market is globalized and there are many more countries supplying oil to the world. Purchasers could easily find alternative sources.

And there is no global energy shortage in absolute terms, notes Montgomery. The planet still harbors vast recoverable reserves of fossil fuels, anywhere from one to three trillion barrels of oil, something like 6,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (possibly triple this with new technologies), and nearly one trillion tons of coal. The problem, of course, is that these riches are unevenly distributed and increasingly marginal and costly to recover. Montgomery cautions readers not to expect renewables to supplant the current energy order anytime soon. The vast majority of the energy human beings consume (80%) is in the form of fossil fuels, a situation that cannot quickly be changed while maintaining our industrial civilization in the lifestyle to which it has become accustomed.

So far, so good, although on the latter point Montgomery assumes that consumers are utterly incapable of voluntarily changing their consumption habits in a meaningful way. The real problem with this book is that the author does not follow up his reexamination of energy and sustainability with a rigorous analysis of how our energy appetites are whetted and sated.

Take his treatment of history, for example. Montgomery views energy as the defining aspect of civilization, which has progressed via the exploitation of increasingly energy-dense resources thanks to capitalist gumption. There are grains of truth in this interpretation, and yet it hardly begins to address the complexities of the energy-industry relationship and leads Montgomery to repeat hoary folk myths, such as that coal birthed England’s industrial revolution. Wrong: textile production in the 18th century was powered almost exclusively by falling water, with coal used mainly for space heating and stoking a smattering of Newcomen engines employed to dewater mines. Only in the first third of the 19th century did coal-fired steam power begin to play a dominant role, in part owing to the advent of the more efficient Watt engine, heralding the era of coke, steel, and railways.

Readers never do learn why people made the choices they did in building the multitrillion-dollar energy economy. In Montgomery’s narrative high-energy civilization makes its appearance all but fully formed. The author has a disconcerting habit of desultorily (and sometimes glibly) treating questions before swiftly moving on to the next object of his fancy. No doubt there is something to the observation that renewables, the brainchild of the “barefoot bearded engineer” (p. 152) of the 1960s, are now firmly the purview of mainstream industry. But surely the role of do-it-yourself off-gridders merits further discussion beyond a single, rather dismissive aside.

There is some value, to be sure, in Montgomery’s analysis of primary energy sources. Here, amidst a welter of detail, are some interesting points. Wind power is the current champion renewable, surpassing longtime venture-capital favorite solar photovoltaics in worldwide installed capacity (121 versus 13.4 gigawatts by 2009). Conversely, geothermal has been unaccountably neglected, with a mere 10 gigawatts of global installed capacity. According to Montgomery, geothermal has vast unexploited potential, at least 50 exajoules (1 exajoule is equivalent to 174 million barrels of oil) in a world that consumes around 480 exajoules annually. 

The section on nuclear power, however, oozes hubris. With little evidence Montgomery breezily dismisses long-standing health and economic concerns as “out of touch” (p. 131). Not only did the Three Mile Island accident not cause a single injury, he claims; it did not have a single environmental impact. Storing the world’s nuclear waste in places like Australia and Canada he thinks an excellent idea (doubtless the inhabitants of those countries would feel differently). And having earlier laid the energy-independence shibboleth to rest, Montgomery reanimates it, claiming that since most natural gas is not located in the United States (although the country
still has vast reserves), nuclear power could reduce dependence.

Readers of social studies of energy won’t find all that much new in this oddly equivocal book. To be fair Montgomery does recognize inconvenient truths. Investment in new energy technologies is a fraction of that spent on defense. Efficiency improvements are negated by overall increases in energy consumption. Americans are inveterate energy hogs.

On the other hand, Montgomery is inclined to blame consumers and the government, giving scant attention to industry’s role in shaping demand. This work compares unfavorably to, say, Bruce Podobnik’s Global Energy Shifts (2006), with its exemplary linkage of energy and social and environmental justice. Montgomery, in contrast, seems preoccupied by partisan geopolitics, as shown by his frequent use of “we” (meaning the “advanced nations” or “the West”). He is less concerned with American energy culture than with the countries that own most of the world’s fossil energy, and ponders at length how China, India, Iran, and Russia have managed (or, rather, mismanaged) their resources. Of the U.S. role in the global energy order the reader catches only glimpses. Overlong, prolix, and polemical, The Powers That Be will be of interest mainly to specialists in studies of energy and society.

Matthew N. Eisler was a 2004–2005 Ullyot Scholar at CHF's Beckman Center. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia.