A Free-Market Energy Blog

Energy Myths versus Reality

By Tom Tanton -- February 5, 2010

In the face of a changing fiscal and political environment, Congress and various states are belatedly rethinking their far-flung  efforts to restructure and regulate the nation’s energy markets. The opportunity is to change course and base their actions on facts, not emotion–and slow down and even reverse governmental largesse. The global warming scare has been cut down to size, after all, and the problems of politically dependent energies are more evident than ever.

Too many legislators and interventionists cling to basic energy myths, however. Here are five major ones.

Myth: Foreign Oil Provides Most of Our Energy

According to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Energy Information Administration, oil represents less than 40% of our energy use. A full two-thirds of that oil comes from North America, primarily Canada, not the Middle East.

A related myth is that alternative energy sources will reduce the use of petroleum. Such sources may first reduce domestic production, but they will not appreciably affect production in unstable regions.

Renewable technologies are subject to import and price security concerns as well. And the equipment for 65% of the wind installations in the U.S. in the past five years have come from foreign sources, including China. Moreoever, rare earth metal ores such as lanthanum and neodymium are vital to electric car batteries and some renewable energy are concentrated in China, for example, and Beijing favors export restrictions.

Myth: Renewables Will Replace Conventional Energy Sources

A correlated and persistent myth is that increasing wind- and solar-generated electricity will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and thus boost our energy security. Less than 1% of our electricity is generated using petroleum, so any renewable generation will have no appreciable effect on petroleum demand.

Activists and regulators believe that energy companies will not invest in clean reliable energy, so we need government programs to do so. This ignores the reality that energy companies are investing huge sums of money to develop cleaner and more reliable sources of energy.

The U.S. is expected to increase its energy demand by 19% over the next two decades. To meet this growth, U.S.-based oil and gas companies from 2000 to 2007 invested an estimated $121.3 billion on emerging energy technologies in the North American market, most of which is in frontier hydrocarbons. This expenditure represents 68% of the estimated total of $180 billion spent by U.S.-based companies.

Despite considerable publicity on their behalf, renewables will remain a small fraction of our energy mix for the foreseeable future.

Myth: The U.S. Is a Disproportionately Large Polluter

The U.S. consumes large amounts of energy and produces a large proportion of the world’s goods and services. But does the U.S., as mythology has it, emit a disproportionate amount of the world’s greenhouse gases? Energy-related emissions of man-made greenhouse gases, after all, represent more than 80% of all anthropogenic emissions. Emissions and energy use are linked.

In 2008, goods and services produced in the U.S. accounted for 30% of all of the world’s production as measured by gross domestic product. In the same year, the U.S. share of global greenhouse gas emissions was about 19%.

And the news is good for the U.S. emissions of the criterion pollutants Carbon Monoxide (CO), Ground-level Ozone (O3), Lead (Pb), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Particulate Matter (PM), and Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). Here are the percentage declines between 1980 and 2008:

Carbon monoxide: 79% decline from 1980

Ground-level Ozone: 25% decrease from 1980

Lead: 92% decrease from 1980

Nitrogen Dioxide: 46% decrease from 1980

Particulate Matter: 19% decrease from 1980

Sulfur Dioxide: 71% decrease from 1980

All this has occured during a time when fossil fuel usage significantly increased–and further emission declines are expected as oil, gas, and coal combustion grows in future years and decades.

Richer countries are actually cleaner and healthier countries. It is the affluent society that does not want to be the effluent society, as various environmental analysts have noted. In fact the U.S. is more efficient and effective than elsewhere.

Myth: Energy Efficiency Cuts Energy Use

Prevailing mythology also favors federal mandates for higher-mileage cars in the belief that this means less energy consumption. This ignores the reality that increased energy efficiency leads to increased energy use overall–the so-called Jevons Paradox.

In the case of vehicles, the fuel efficiency, as measured by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), has led to increased driving, and — along with changing land-use patterns and increases in population — to increased consumption.

Some hold that forcing drivers to use alternative fuels will help solve global warming. Such fuels, unfortunately, do not necessarily result in lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Myth: Increased Oil Production Can’t Be “Green”

Expanding domestic oil production would reduce imports and even help improve the environment. Less than 1% of all oil found in the North American marine environment comes from offshore oil and gas development. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 60% of oil in the marine environment is the result of natural oil seepage through the ocean floor. In many places, it is even higher.

For example, all of the tar on the beaches of Santa Barbara is from natural oil seeps. Reducing oil reservoir pressure through extraction of petroleum will decrease oil pollution from natural seepage. New drilling technology, developed by private energy companies, has greatly reduced the risk of oil spills.

Reality-based Energy Policy

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That adage, attributed to Mark Twain, applies in particular to energy. Energy myths have consequences their advocates prefer to ignore. Policy based on myths could easily curtail our energy supply, drive up prices, and even increase pollution, all without an increase in energy security.

On the other hand, a common-sense energy policy based on facts stands the best chance of increasing our supply, lowering prices, trimming emissions, and boosting our overall energy security. If that is indeed their goal, policy makers, the media, and the public should reject energy myths and stick to the path of reality.

That way alone leads to energy abundance and security for America.


Thomas Tanton is president of T2 & Associates and senior fellow in energy studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Mr. Tanton’s previous employment includes serving as Vice President and Senior Fellow, Institute for Energy Research; General Manager, Electric Power and Research Institute (EPRI); and principle policy advisor, California Energy Commission (CEC).


  1. Jon Boone  

    As is his usual wont, Tom provides a timely digest of energy reality that those interested in more enlightened policy can use as an antidote for all the pervasive bromide served up by those hoping to sell nonsense.

    Humanity has a long history of investing much in the stuff dreams are made of, rewarding faith in an idea while getting little by way of material benefit for the masses. A great part of our modernity has been involved with turning this tide, insisting on tangible benefits in exchange for our labor and treasure while restricting individuals who seek to impose their vision of a better world on all.

    Investment in nonsense, while soothing to those playing fantasy energy games, has profound negative consequences because of the lost investment in scenarios that affect reality, thereby improving our collective health and wealth, including our environmental wealth.


  2. Myths and reality  

    […] a good rundown on some of the reality in the wash of misinformation out there, see Energy Myths versus Reality by Tom Tanton of the Pacific Research Institute. The opportunity is to change course and base their […]


  3. Kate  

    Johan Rockstrom, cited in “A Failed System: The World Crisis of Capitalist Globalization and its Impact on China” by John Bellamy Foster http://www.oid-ido.org/article.php3?id_article=808
    “In addressing capitalism as a failed system I have focused first on the deepening economic crisis. But this is not the worst of the world’s problems. The greatest peril is the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse. Here the danger is much greater than in the case of the world economy”


  4. Kate  

    Lonnie Thompson and Richard Alley: are mentioned in ONE SENTENCE with James Hansen. (Note also the best hockey stick graph you are ever likely to see.)


  5. Kate  

    My point: Marxism is the primary resource for environmentalists these days.

    We ARE what we read.

    Readers of history books understand these ideas: pietas, fides, gravitas, dignitas, constantia. (These virtues were interwoven into the Roman education system.) Some people still read these ideas: Forgotten Gems http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=60&Itemid=262

    Readers who love science fiction understand utopian ideas. (These are the ideas interwoven into our current culture.)

    See “Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction” by Mark Bould
    Product Description: Science fiction and socialism have always had a close relationship.


  6. Kate  

    My first post has gone missing. I explained that I was given a list of scientists who are the main resources for man-made global warming believers. I searched these names and found a pattern.


  7. Kate  

    Richard Leakey: If you Google the exact phrase: “Professor Richard Leakey” you will find him in this book: Marxism and Environmental Crises by David Layfield.


  8. Kate  

    James Lovelock: “Perhaps one day the children we shall share with Gaia will peacefully co-operate with the great mammals of the ocean and use whale power to travel faster and faster in the mind, as horse power once carried us over the ground.”
    Gaia A new look at life on Earth, by James Lovelock (1979) http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/gaia.htm


  9. Coleman Hasie  

    It appears to me that this issue requires further dissection. I’m quite willing to be wrong about this, but comparing oil imports to the cost of Wind turbine components that are manufactured in China, just doesn’t seem to jive. Oil is a finite energy source and the world cannot supply the demand, although it could cover that bet only 20 yrs ago or so. A wind turbine, well, parts is parts, followed by (and only if the geography fits the criteria), an unlimited and ever-present (part of the criteria) source of energy, ie. the wind. The electricity is used “on-the-fly” which reduces the demand on energy-generating plants powered by coal.
    Really, the only green concerns for or against matter only if they affect the Fed’s decision to offer incentives. Wind turbines will go up if there is money in it and right now the greener the source the sourcer the green. However, energy demand will increase as populations increase and evolve. The more energy sources the merrier, right? I could be wrong.
    What I believe ultimately matters to you and me is that we have a source of power should another one fail, and until we start trading in barrels of electricity all we are going to do is use what we generate stateside ( but not in Canada because that isn’t the USA) and become that much more self sufficient. Any reduction of dependancy is a positive.
    Now, if the greenback is worthless…
    I suggest removing the word “green” from any discussion that isn’t about color, although you could use it to describe myself about this subject and be quite accurate. I’d drive a 69 GTO everyday if I could.


  10. Jon Boone  

    You are wrong, Coleman. The more energy sources, depending upon what they are, doesn’t equate to “merrier.” Wind technology is dysfunctional since it must make necessary compensatory systems less efficient, increasing both the financial cost and the thermal activity all around, subverting any ability to offset greenhouse gas emissions, which is its very reason for being. Meanwhile, its utter unreliability and occasionally extreme volatility puts the security of electricity supply at great risk. Although it’s application provides makework for engineers, it’s criminal for consumers.

    Comparing the cost of wind with coal, nuclear, or natural gas is akin to comparing the cost of an automobile that doesn’t work when you want it to work with the cost of an automobile that performs precisely as required whenever desired. We have lemon laws protecting people who purchase cars in the expectation they are buying highly reliable machines from dealers who would sell them junk. We should demand similar laws for our electricity supply.

    Wise energy policy would enhance, even extend, the technology that preserves the energy requirements of modernity. Technologies like volatile wind are not cutting edge and progressive; they’re retrograde and uncivil.


  11. Chris Lawrence  

    Yes, Jevons paradox is true, but only within the context of a system that values economic growth as a primarly goal. It is not a physical law. If the primary goal was a reduction in energy use and an increase in sustainability, than efficiency would be very helpful.



  12. Jon Boone  

    Hmmmm. Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, the fly in the ointment is those pesky conversion processes involved with enabling precision machine performance trying to keep the Second Law of Thermodynamics at bay.

    In the electricity and transportation sectors, we have gotten a lot more efficient–and economic productivity seems to be both cause and result of that efficiency.

    Using more machines that require less precision is exactly what our modernity has evolved to replace, resulting in vast improvement in the human condition. Would that the pharaohs have had efficient steam power….


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