Monday, April 14, 2014

The Energy Wars

As Russia angles for a way to annex the first hundred kilometers of the Ukraine natural gas pipeline, I can’t help thinking of the energy wars that were a recurring theme in 1970s American science fiction. That fictional theme was obvious enough if you think of the historical context. The fictional scenario was that energy producers — the massive corporations that run energy installations such as oil refineries and nuclear power stations — would amass so much influence that they would secretly be running the world. Then they would begin to fight proxy wars with each other for world dominance, but the energy giants’ involvement would be mostly a secret, hidden from the public.

Energy wars have been an unacknowledged part of U.S. policy for a generation, with the war in Iraq being conducted as much by an oil services company as by the U.S. military, even if you would not see the oil tycoon on television giving the press briefings. Russia currently is even more under the thumb of its energy sector than the United States is. It is not really the civil government in Russia that wants to control Ukraine, nor the military, but the natural gas producers, who lose enormous sums in revenue whenever the pipeline that crosses Ukraine is not operating.

So is the world heading for generations of energy wars, as the science fiction stories predicted? I don’t believe so. In the science fiction stories, the heart of the energy giants’ strategy was the suppression of information on all decentralized forms of energy. Corporations can dominate energy only when energy installations are engineered on a massive scale, beyond the financial reach of a homeowner or a small town. As long as ordinary workers can purchase rooftop solar installations and similar small-scale energy sources, centralized control of energy faces limits. In the novels, energy companies recognized this and used their political might to eliminate solar power. They made sure that information on a whole range of energy technology, from small-scale nuclear reactors to batteries, was a state secret. If the breadth of energy technology were to become known to the public, the continuing energy wars would lose their popular support.

In real life, no one industry has cornered the market on energy. We have certainly seen well-funded efforts in recent years to discredit energy technology, but I don’t think that campaign is having much effect. When people see solar-powered airplanes fly, hear music festivals powered by bicycles, or warm up by wood-burning stoves, it anchors the idea that there are choices. I don’t know if Europe is ready to say, “Maybe we can do without natural gas,” but there are legislators pushing that point of view. It is too late for the past two decades of innovation in energy technology to be turned into a secret. The more risky natural gas or any other centralized energy source becomes, the more speaking time those who want to build alternatives will be afforded.