A Free-Market Energy Blog

Expanding Energy Horizons (Part II: Robert L. Bradley Interview)

By -- January 12, 2011

[This is Part II of an interview of Robert L. Bradley Jr. by Stephen Hicks (website here). Part I was published last week.]

Kaizen: You began as a specialist in oil and gas regulation. How did you evolve from there to where you are now?

Bradley: There are four or so stanzas in my intellectual career to date. The first was certainly oil and gas regulation, taxation, and subsidization, the subject of my Cato book, Oil, Gas & Government: The U.S. Experience. The research for that was essentially complete by 1985 when went to the corporate world by joining HNG-InterNorth, soon to become Enron.

In my first years at Enron, I became conversant with the electricity market and its regulation, which was really a new area for me, a second stanza in my development. I was a market analyst for one of Enron’s three interstate pipelines, Transwestern, that sold natural gas to California.

Natural gas was the swing fuel in electric generation. So to understand gas demand you had to understand power demand. Electricity was a step out from just oil and gas, and California had the most complex and progressive regulation in the country. (That shouldn’t be taken as a compliment, by the way.) California energy regulation has been and still is a mess….

Next, in the mid-1990s, I branched out to the sustainable development debate, which in large part is about three energy issues: mineral depletion, industrial pollution, and man-made climate change. This was where the energy policy debate was going. So if I had stuck with just energy intervention per se, I would have missed the boat.

I remember convening a meeting in Washington with the free-market energy folks. There were about 10 or 15 of us. Jerry Taylor of Cato was there. Some folks from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others. We went around the room discussing priorities. The clear message was that energy environmentalism was the big thing, not traditional energy regulation. I got back on the plane to Houston thinking that I needed to expand my expertise.

Kaizen: So this is your third stanza, or the second stanza if you just look at energy.

Bradley: Right. Going from oil and gas to electricity–and then to the broader area of energy sustainability.

Being at Enron really helped me in this broadening once again. With a consulting budget, I hired top climate scientists from both sides of the global warming debate to help me understand what was behind the scientific controversy and all the related fuss.

I attended conferences and gave papers. I was Enron’s representative to the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), which was chaired by Al Gore. Those PCSD meetings were quite interesting for a libertarian, to say the least!

The highlight was the grand finale where I spoke to a packed room right after Gore as Ken Lay’s stand in. Lay had to cancel at the last minute because Enron’s president, Richard Kinder, had just resigned. I spoke quickly on free-market environmentalism and sat down. I was quite uncomfortable.

Kaizen: Who was the libertarian or thought leader who might have influenced you in this area?

Bradley: Julian Simon, certainly. He was an intellectual father figure, not unlike Mises, Rothbard, and Hayek were for me either in person or just through their writings.

F. A. Hayek in a fan letter to Simon said The Ultimate Resource, Julian’s signature book published in 1981, put it all together for him. Simon was that important.

In late 1997, just three months before his death, I arranged for Simon to speak in Houston as part of a lecture series that Enron sponsored along with the Houston Forum.

Julian and I met for the first time and were instant friends. We began planning to write a joint paper and having a conference on energy themes. Then I got the news about his expected death. It just broke my heart, as it did for so many others in the movement. Julian had a “soul of honey,” as one tribute said.

I published a tribute book, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (2000) in his honor for the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC as it is called. My dedication page read: “To energy and climate realists in a time of exaggeration and hyperbole.” I think Simon would have liked that.

Recently, a group of us started an energy blog, MasterResource, www.MasterResource.org, which is in the Simon tradition. Julian Simon is the one that called energy the master resource.

Kaizen: And you received an award in Simon’s honor.

Bradley: In 2001, the Competitive Enterprise Institute inaugurated a Julian L. Simon Memorial Award with support from the Simon family, all very nice people. The first award went to Stephen Moore, Simon’s student at the University of Illinois who became his research assistant and has gone on to do such great things.

I got the second award the next year, which meant so much to me. I had been laid off from Enron just months before and was on my own, so the recognition helped me get back on my feet professionally. And it was such a great honor–the free market side does not have a lot of such awards.

Kaizen: So where are we now in terms of your intellectual development?

Bradley: Still on sustainable development, certainly. That is where political economy and energy is and will be. The peak-oil community and the climate alarmists are not going away!

I very much work within the tradition of Austrian School in terms of economic analysis and of political economy. So several years ago I published two theoretical works that have some cachet in the libertarian/Austrian movement: an interpretation and history of mineral-resource thought, and a typology of government intervention. These thought or theory pieces turned out well, but they were challenging for me to write.

[Editor note: The articles are:

The interventionist typology essay draws upon Oil, Gas, and Government. I got to the end of that treatise, which summarized oil and gas intervention at all government levels from the nineteenth century until the 1980s. I had to make sense of it all. What commonalities are there between the thousands of interventionist acts and hundreds of regulatory episodes? How do they fit with one another?

So I ended up creating a typology of intervention with categories and terms that I revised and published in an essay of a book dedicated to an old friend of mine who tragically died of cancer at age 51, Don Lavoie.

I also applied the typology of intervention to the U.S. energy market.

[Editor note: The article is Interventionist Dynamics in the U.S. Energy Industry”Advances in Austrian Economics: Special Volume (2006)]

Kaizen: Then comes the fall of Enron. How does this affect your research priorities?

Bradley: A lot! With the collapse, everyone wants to write about what was behind the curtain. A number of books got quickly commissioned, and I remember a sense of frustration that I was not on anyone’s list. At the time, in fact, I was well along on the Enron Oral History Project, which I co-directed with the University of Houston business historian, Joe Pratt. We had transcribed interviews with dozens of major figures in Enron’s history, from old economics professors of Ken Lay to members of the board of directors of Enron, past and present.

So what I did post-Enron was to raise money from about a dozen old-line Houstonians who were pro-market and shocked by the demise of what had been the most revered company in Houston. I declined an offer from Ken Lay to help him with his autobiography, a book that he evidently never got around to writing.

I was fortunate enough to be able to write my own history of events. But it has taken a lot of time—sort of like a return to my Oil, Gas, and Government days. Book 1, Capitalism at Work, is out. And I am well along on Book 2, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategy.

But the trilogy has put me on a new path–my fourth stanza perhaps–that is beyond just energy and government intervention: corporate governance in light of the classical liberal worldview. This is the intersection of what Charles Koch has called “the science of liberty” and “the science of success.” In recent years, I have given almost as many talks on organizational success/failure as on energy, at schools and at off-site corporate meetings.

Kaizen: That is an interesting evolution. The point is to continue growing, to not stop. Let your expertise in one area get you into a new, related area.

Bradley: Yes, we can’t get too comfortable with the old stuff, but the new area needs to be complementary and mastered. Some humility is good too. Too many scholars have jumped into areas outside of their expertise and exhibited hubris.


  1. Gary Novak  

    From an outside view, I totally agree with the Julian Simon concept that resources are something that is developed more than extracted. I also totally agree that central planning is the ruination of man. But the libertarians and conservatives absolutize the alternative instead of realistically drawing lines. There is no such thing as total deregulation. There would be no airplanes in the skies or cars on the streets without some regulations. Without a description of where that line is between constructive regulations and no regulations, the results get extremely destructive. I’m sure there are some who theorize the proper way to deregulate, but no such theory exists politically. It’s just buz saw economics for conservatives and libertarians.


  2. travis  

    To champion no regulation by government is not a call for no regulation. As Mises has pointed out, profit and loss in a free market setting is a very strict form of regulation. It is so severe that our crony-capitalist businessmen are constantly sucking up to government to avoid that regulation. They would rather be regulated by EPA where they can at least control some of the government imposed impacts through regulatory capture.
    The controls demanded by profit and loss and respect for the boundaries of private property are too severe for the GE, Duke Energy types. Given a choice, they would rather have EPA.


  3. Gary Novak  


    You demonstrate the point. Even if all that you say is true, it evades the necessary questions. “Respect for boundaries of private property” requires some regulation. Where is the rest of the regulating supposed to be?

    A critical point which I never see mentioned is that some laws are needed to create freedom. That’s why criminal codes exist. They give people the freedom to do things without being criminalized. Similarly, traffic laws give people the freedom to travel without depending upon someone else.

    Conservatives and libertarians never tell us what laws are needed to give us freedom. They pretend, as you do, that no laws are adequate. In positions of power, they often assume that they are above laws of congress. That position is leaving society without a concept of the difference between good laws and bad laws.

    Gary Novak


  4. Jon Boone  

    Good discussion, Travis and Gary. Back in the day, one heard the slogan, “you can’t legislate morality.” A little thought, a very little, really, revealed the just the opposite. All laws, all strictures, all ordinances and regulations, are at root based upon moral precepts. A parking ticket, fairly given, is an acknowledgment that someone violated a reasoned access to parking, potentially denying access to another. So, yes, freedom, in the paradoxical fashion of most complex behavior, begins with a sense of restriction and blossoms into a consideration about how any movement impacts the outside world. And then the question devolves: where to draw the line? Of course, Bureaucratic Rule # 1 is that you’ve got to draw the line–somewhere.


  5. travis  

    Mr. Novak;

    We have laws. They are called natural laws. They come from God, not from man. These laws are absolutes. For example, thou shalt not steal. The thief may ignore my right to be free from theft, but he does not want me stealing from him. As a self-owner, the thief understands the natural law.

    Private property rights, starting with your private property right in your person, is a boundary that all recognize, whether or not they respect it. Government or man-created laws are invariably created by entities that have little of no respect for
    boundaries. To claim that I do not recognize that it is a violation of my neighbor’s private property right to dump my effluent on his property is false. I would be very upset if he dumped his effluent on my property. At the level of our own rights, we both understand the law. We do not need the EPA to tell us it is wrong.


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