TCS Daily

Julian Simon Would Be Proud

By Jack Rafuse - June 17, 2005 12:00 AM

The late Julian Simon wrote dozens of books and articles debunking neo-Malthusians. In the 1980 swirl of Three Mile Island and record-high oil prices, he bet doomsayer Paul Ehrlich $1,000 that any five commodities he chose would cost less in 1990. Ehrlich chose; Simon won. The price of each commodity was down 40%.

Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills have written a book, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, The Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, that is debunking, technical, entertaining and surprising, much in the same way Julian Simon's work was. Huber and Mills reveal:

    · Forests: When the Pilgrims landed (1620), our 48-State area had an estimated 
        1,045 million acres of forest. By 1920, only 720 million; today we have 740 
        to 800 million and replant about 3 million acres per year (30 times the logging 
        rate). "Within a generation, if current trends continue, America could return 
        to levels of forestation last seen by the Pilgrims."

    · Conserving electricity: US demand has risen non-stop since Edison 
        sold electricity (1882) and is projected to rise 20 to 30 percent by 2015. 
        "Economic growth marches hand in hand with increased consumption 
        of electricity - always, everywhere, without significant exception in the 
        annals of modern industrial history." Despite years of governmental 
        meddling to encourage or mandate more efficiency or conservation, 
        the overall US need for energy and electricity continues to rise.

    · Alternative energy: After decades of US subsidies, 'renewables' generate 
        about 0.7 percent of our (highest cost) electricity. "No conceivable 
        mix of solar, biomass, or wind technology could meet even half our current 
        demand without (at the very least) doubling the human footprint on the 
        surface of the continent." We subsidize them for environmental reasons?

    · Kyoto Accords: The US emits about 1.6 billion metric tons per year of 
        carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air -- and absorbs 1.7 billion! West-to-east 
        prevailing winds should make CO2 concentrations in the North Atlantic 300 
        parts per billion higher in the North Atlantic than in the North Pacific, but 
        "they're about 300 parts per billion lower." (From "a stunning but little 
        publicized article," in October, 1998 Science.) Why don't we hear that in 
        the Global Warming debate?

Huber and Mills' book would make useful reading as the Senate considers a new energy bill. The bill currently before a Senate committee ignores science and economics, but not pork.

For example, the bill will create a program to encourage the purchase of stationary and vehicular hydrogen fuel cell systems. But Huber and Mills call fuel cells "technology that almost no one yet uses, or is likely to use any time soon." It's fine for NASA, but too dangerous, expensive and hard to handle at home. Drive train electrification for every vehicle is here and coming; but will we eventually generate power with diesel fuel and gasoline, or fuel cars with nuclear-generated hydrogen?

We can't predict the economics of these "very different alternatives . . . over the next decade or two, [so] it's a waste of time to try to formulate long-term policies centered on one vision rather than another," they write. "For the next decade . . . policy-makers with an eye on transportation technology should have the wisdom and courage to stand aside and let the future unfold without them."

The bill as it is currently constructed will choose technologies and impede progress in every R&D sector. Researchers are moving fast, and need to make as many breakthroughs as they did in the past thirty years. They should be free to experiment and innovate, and not be pushed to adopt predetermined technological solutions that may not turn out to solve anything. Remember synfuels?

Calling for "sensible political accommodation" on nuclear power, Huber and Mills point out that "conventional fuels advance, and the forests of North America expand apace. To be sure, our carbon books would be even more solidly in the black if we could get all the new trees while burning less oil and coal, too. But the practical and political fact is that the two trends are not severable, or at least weren't until the development of practical fission reactors. We can do better still on our carbon books of account, and we will. But what has already been achieved in transitioning our economy to coal, oil and uranium is fantastically good. It should be celebrated as the environmental triumph it is." Amen.

The author is a consultant on domestic and international energy, security and trade issues.


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