Public Agenda (http://www.publicagenda.org/) says that it is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.” They publish “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” which is supposed to explain “the essential facts about energy and its sources.” The publication can be viewed on their web site, or downloaded and printed (9 pages).

Page 1 isn’t worth printing, unless you want to waste printer ink on a cover dominated by a color graphic and carrying little in the way of useful information.

Near the top of page 2, in a section entitled “Where We Stand,” they say, “In 2010, we imported less than 50 percent of the oil we used, for the first time in 13 years, and that trend continued in 2011.” According to the United States Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), this is not even close to true. Unfortunately, Public Agenda does not cite a source for the “less than 50%” figure, though they do cite sources elsewhere.

We know that Public Agenda is aware of the EIA’s “Annual Energy Review 2010,” because on page 3, they cite it as the source for two of their three charts illustrating energy consumption and production in the United States. Had they looked carefully at the chart which is, by coincidence, page 3 of the very same EIA document they cite, they could have seen the EIA’s figures for petroleum consumption, imported petroleum and exported petroleum.

Page 3 of the EIA “Annual Energy Review 2012” is the source of the following figures, all of which are measured in quadrillions of British Thermal Units (QBTU) of energy for the year 2010:

Domestic production of crude oil – 11.67 QBTU
Domestic production of NGPL      –  2.69 QBTU
     (NGPL = Natural Gas Plant Liquids, which are added to refined petroleum products to produce fuels such as gasoline, and thus can reasonably be counted as part of petroleum consumption.)

Adding these two together gives us 14.36 QBTU of domestic production for crude oil and NGPL sources of liguid fuels.

Imported petroleum (crude and refined) – 25.29 QBTU
Exported petroleum (crude and refined) –  4.81 QBTU

Subtracting, we have 20.48 QBTU of net imports.

The chart also gives a figure for petroleum consumption, of 35.97 QBTU.

Domestic production (14.36 QBTU) is 40% of domestic consumption, according to the EIA.

There is a discrepancy of 3% between reported consumption and production plus net imports, according to the EIA’s own figures. The EIA also reports a figure of 1.35 QBTU for “adjustments, losses and unaccounted for” energy, which is a bit more than the 3% discrepancy. Perhaps a portion of the known error goes to the figures for exported petroleum and petroleum products.

Net imports (20.48 QBTU) accounts for 57% of domestic consumption. This is not even close to being “less than 50 percent of the oil we used,” even allowing for a 3% error in the EIA’s figures.

Public Agenda, in the very beginning of their report, is telling us a “fact” which they could and should have known is simply not true. We could speculate about the reasons for their giving us bad information on such an important element of energy and enrgy policy, but we have to recognize that the report is something less than reliable.

The misinformation about how much we depend on imported oil is hardly the only flaw in Public Agenda’s report. It happens to be one that can be shown definitely to be wrong. It also happens to be a fact that the report’s writers could easily have known to be wrong, and should have. Why they chose to public misinformation is an interesting question, but one that we cannot answer with any assurance of being right.

Perhaps the major flaw in their energy report is the assumption, embedded throughout, that because demand for energy is projected to increase in coming years, we should and could make sure that the requisite amount and types of energy are both available and affordable. Like gold, or water, or any other useful thing, energy is not necessarily available just because we want it. If the energy is not available in sufficient quantity, then it will not be affordable, and we will in fact have to adjust to using less and doing less.

This is not the same as creating a more energy-efficient society, in which we do everything we want, but more efficiently. It could mean doing far less of things we want (flying, driving, air-conditioning in the desert) and not doing some things at all (eating oranges and other delicacies out of season or far from the places they are grown, for instance).

In other words, this report assumes that we can, in the long run, have plentiful energy for everyone, in spite of population growth and environmental degradation, if only we pick the right “balance’ of policies. It does not recognize that, just possibly, there is no possible set of policies that will have this result. Perhaps environmental degradation and depletion of resources will have unpleasant and unavoidable consequences, including a traumatic decline in population or at least a long-lasting decline in the economy.

Art Myatt

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