Tom Friedman’s Twisted Energy Politics

When it comes to energy issues, Thomas Friedman simply doesn’t care about the facts.

That reality was made apparent, once again, in Friedman’s column in the February 10 issue of the New York Times. In an otherwise mostly sensible article, written from Yemen, where Friedman was talking about the need for proper educational opportunity in the Arabic and Islamic worlds, Friedman concluded that the US will have to maintain a strong military presence in the region in order to counter al-Qaeda. But he continues, we also must “help build schools and fund scholarships to America wherever we can. And please, please, let’s end our addiction to oil, which is what gives the Saudi religious ministry and charities the money to spread anti-modernist thinking across this region.”

Friedman has been bashing the Saudis for so long, it’s hardly worth recounting the many instances where he does so. But the fact that Friedman once again trots out the tired cliché of our “addiction to oil” and that he then immediately ties that issue to the Saudis shows that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Rather than stick to the facts, he retreats to a mindless slogan that contributes nothing to the need for a broader discussion of energy policy and the reality of the global marketplace.

The US could quit buying oil tomorrow, all oil, an it won’t put the Saudis out of business. According to the EIA, in 2008, the Saudis exported an average of 8.4 million barrels of oil per day. Of that quantity, the US accounted for about 1.5 million barrels per day.

Thus, even if the US somehow managed to segregate Saudi crude from its other oil imports, and also prevented the Saudis from selling that 1.5 million barrels per day somewhere else, Saudi Arabia would still be selling about 7 million barrels of oil on the global market. Needless to say, that 7 million barrels per day will bring the kingdom a fair bit of revenue.

Of course, Wednesday’s column isn’t the first time Friedman has shown that he cares more about polemics than facts. In August 2008, he held up Denmark as an energy model that should be copied by the US. In the wake of the 1973 Oil Embargo, Friedman claims that Demark “responded to that crisis in such a sustained, focused and systematic way that today it is energy independent.” Friedman went on to lament America’s situation, writing that if “only we could be as energy smart as Denmark!”

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Friedman clearly loves the idea of energy independence, but the data shows that Denmark is not energy independent – it’s not even close. The Danes import all of their coal. I repeat, Denmark imports all of its coal. Furthermore, those coal imports – and coal consumption – show little sign of declining even though Denmark’s wind power production capacity has increased rapidly over the past few years. And Denmark is even more dependent on coal than the US! (1)

Nor did Friedman bother to mention that thanks to the Danish government’s exorbitant taxes, the Danes now have some of the world’s most expensive electricity and most expensive motor fuel.

In 2006, the Energy Information Administration looked at residential electricity rates in 65 countries and found that Denmark’s rates were the highest, by far, at some $0.32 per kilowatt-hour. That was about 25% higher than the electricity costs in the Netherlands, which had the next-highest rates in the survey, at $0.25 per kilowatt-hour. And that’s not a new phenomenon. From 1999 through 2006, Denmark had either the highest – or the next-highest – electricity rates of the countries surveyed by the EIA. (In 1999 and 2000, Japan’s electricity rates were slightly higher than those in Denmark.)  Furthermore, Denmark electricity rates are the highest in Europe – and no other country comes close. (2)

In 2008, electricity rates were even higher, with Danish residential customers were paying $0.38 per kilowatt-hour – or nearly four times as much as US residential customers who were paying about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. And the Danes were paying more than twice as much as their counterparts in nuclear-heavy France, where residential electricity costs were $0.17 per kilowatt-hour.

While Danish homeowners are getting spanked by expensive electricity, Danish motorists are getting absolutely mugged at the service station. In late 2008, Danish drivers were paying $1.54 per liter for gasoline, while drivers in the U.K. were paying $1.44 and US motorists were paying $0.56. According to GTZ, an agency of the German government, only a handful of countries have more expensive fuel than Denmark, a list that includes Italy, Norway, Turkey and Germany.

Unfortunately, Friedman’s polemics on energy are nothing new. Back in 2006, Friedman published a column in the Times saying that the U.S. should build a wall around itself. “Build a virtual wall. End our oil addiction.” Getting rid of our need for oil will, he wrote, “protect us from the worst in the Arab-Muslim world….These regimes will never reform as long as they enjoy windfall oil profits.” The solution, he declared is for America to build “a wall of energy independence” around itself. Doing so, “will enable us to continue to engage honestly with the most progressive Arabs and Muslims on a reform agenda.”

Remember that this is the same Friedman, who, in his 2005 best-selling book, The World is Flat, declared that the world was increasingly globalized and the implications of that were obvious. In this new “flat” world, money, jobs, and opportunity, Friedman said, will “go to the countries with the best infrastructure, the best education system that produces the most educated work force, the most investor-friendly laws, and the best environment.” (3)

Hmmm. So doesn’t that also mean that in our new “flat” world, that energy will be exported by the countries that have the best infrastructure for providing that energy to the world market?

Friedman’s problem is that he wants it both ways: he espouses the merits and potential of the new flat world, while also insisting that the US should withdraw into energy isolationism, and thereby surrender any participation in the world’s single biggest industry, the global energy sector. The irreconcilable contradictions in Friedman’s arguments are easily seen in the penultimate paragraph in The World is Flat where he claims that the “two greatest dangers we Americans face are an excess of protectionism – excessive fears of another 9/11 that prompt us to wall ourselves in, in search of personal security – and excessive fears of competing in a world…that prompt us to wall ourselves off, in search of economic security. Both would be a disaster for us and for the world.”

So, to summarize Friedman’s world view, he wants a “wall of energy independence” around America while simultaneously warning Americans that the two greatest dangers are a) walling “ourselves in” and b) walling “ourselves off.”

Friedman sees a flat world where walls are dangerous because they will isolate the US from other countries. But when it comes to energy, walls are good because they isolate the US from other countries. Oh, and along the way, we need to bankrupt the Saudis, because, well, they might give money to people who don’t think like we do.

Is anyone else here confused?

ROBERT BRYCE’s fourth book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, will be published in April.

Notes.
(1) BP Statistical Review of World Energy. In 2007, Denmark got 26% of its primary energy from coal while the US got 24.3%.

(2) Eurostat data. Available: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_OFFPUB/KS-QA-08-045/EN/KS-QA-08-045-EN.PDF.
Also: http://www.cbs.nl/en-GB/menu/themas/industrie-energie/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2007/2007-2187-wm.htm

(3) Yale Global Online, “’Wake Up and Face the Flat Earth’ – Thomas L. Friedman,” April 18, 2005. Available: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=5581

Robert Bryce will publish his fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.

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