Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 1, 2011

What is Robert Bryce doing on Counterpunch?

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

Robert Bryce

An old friend alerted me to the presence of Robert Bryce’s articles on Counterpunch. Bryce is the author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future”, a book whose agenda you can figure out from the scare quotes around Green. Apparently, according to the blurb on Amazon.com, Bryce rules out wind and solar power as ineffective and insists that “The world isn’t using too much oil. It’s not using enough”. Furthermore:

Bryce makes a strong case for heavier reliance upon natural gas, a relatively clean and readily available carbon fuel, as a bridge technology: “The smartest, most forward-looking U.S. energy policy can be summed up in one acronym: ‘N2N’,” for “natural gas to nuclear power.”

Forward-looking? Natural gas? The stuff that comes to the surface through fracking? And nuclear power???? The energy source that, according to Alexander Cockburn, is being foisted on us in the name of a non-existent climate change threat? Here’s Bryce talking up nuclear power in a New York Times op-ed:

All energy and power systems exact a toll. If we are to take Schumacher’s phrase to heart while also reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, we must exploit the low-carbon energy sources — natural gas and, yes, nuclear — that have smaller footprints.

And, just as a reminder, here’s Alexander on nuclear power and global warming alarmism:

The world’s best-known hysteric and self promoter on the topic of man’s physical and moral responsibility for global warming is Al Gore, a shill for the nuclear industry and the coal barons from the first day he stepped into Congress entrusted with the sacred duty to protect the budgetary and regulatory interests of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Oakridge National Lab. White House “task forces” on climate change in the Clinton-Gore years were always well freighted by Gore and his adviser John Holdren with nukers like Lawrence Papay of Bechtel.

Maybe if Gore had included a pitch for Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” mantra, it would have passed muster with our intrepid if inconsistent journalist.

Bryce is a scholar at the Manhattan Institute in New York, arguably one of the most reactionary think-tanks in the country that was launched by CIA director William Casey in 1978. It includes William Kristol on the board of trustees. Perhaps Cockburn looks benignly on Manhattan Institute scholars since they are climate change skeptics just like him. The Koch brothers contributed $1,525,000 to the Manhattan Institute between 1999 and 2009. I guess there’s no surprise there.

The Institute publishes City Journal, a magazine that along with Commentary and Kristol’s own Weekly Standard helps to define the intellectual agenda of the ultraright in the U.S. The current issue has an article by paleoconservative Victor Davis Hanson on California’s water problems. Unsurprisingly, he takes the side of agribusiness against environmentalists worried about wildlife using the same kinds of arguments that have been deployed in the past about the spotted owl, the snail darter, et al: “What is clear in this confused mess is that concerns for salmon and smelt now endanger a vast California agribusiness sector that provides thousands of jobs, earns the state billions in revenue, and ships produce worldwide at a time of global food crisis.” Will Victor Davis Hanson’s name be the next to grace the pages of Counterpunch? One has to wonder.

I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds but Counterpunch does tend to frown on the extraction of oil from Tar Sands in Canada. On August 9th of this month, they published an article by Brian L. Horejsi that starts off:

Some time in the very near future – perhaps as early as this fall –  President Obama and administration insiders will approve the construction of the massive Keystone XL pipeline. With the stroke of that pen the gates will open to the flow of about 700,000 barrels of the most costly and toxic oil on earth from below the no longer quiet boreal forests of Alberta to Oklahoma and the Gulf of Mexico. He will make that decision on the back of pressure from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, personal pressure from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper whose home happens to be in Alberta, and under intense pressure from a  coalition of republicans and democrats whose election campaigns have benefited from millions of dollars contributed by the oil and gas industry.

Meanwhile Bryce debates Bill McKibben on the PBS News Hour, making the case for Tars Sands oil production: http://www.tarsandsaction.org/mckibben-debates-keystone-xl-pbs/

I understand that Counterpunch likes to spice up their issues with the musings of rightwing slugs like Paul Craig Roberts, but is there any real value in Bryce’s articles? There’s a long jeremiad against wind energy titled T. Boone’s Windy Misadventure that takes issue with the “corporate” promotion of wind turbines that emit low-frequency noises that wreak havoc with your psyche, kill golden eagles, etc. One wonders if Bryce will ever find the occasion to submit an article to Counterpunch defending another initiative of T. Boone Pickens, namely drilling for natural gas using hydrofracking. Here’s Robert Bryce telling Wall Street Journal readers about the wonders of hyrdrofracking:

America Needs the Shale Revolution

June 13, 2011

Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is on the verge of an industrial renaissance if—and it’s a big if—policy makers don’t foul it up by restricting the ability of drillers to use the technology that’s making a renaissance possible: hydraulic fracturing.

The shale drilling boom now underway in Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other states is already creating jobs, slashing natural-gas prices, and spurring billions of dollars of investment in new production capacity for critical commodities like steel and petrochemicals. Better yet, it’s spurring a huge increase in domestic oil production, which has been falling steadily since the 1970s.

Despite the myriad benefits of the low-cost hydrocarbons that are now being produced thanks to hydraulic fracturing, the media, environmental groups and politicians are hyping the possible dangers of the process, which uses high-pressure pumps to force water, sand and chemicals into shale formations. Doing so fractures the formation and allows the extraction of natural gas or petroleum.

Mostly Bryce’s articles on Counterpunch might seem unobjectionable since typically they debunk claims made for Ethanol, a “Green” energy source that will ultimately threaten food production near and far. But there’s one titled Bamboozled About Energy that really clues you in what he is about:

It has taken the US more than a century to build a $14 trillion economy – an economy that is based almost entirely on abundant supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas. No matter which of the “green” energy technologies that are now being hyped – electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. – will make a dramatic dent in US or global energy consumption for decades to come.

Moving the US and world economies away from hydrocarbons will take most of the 21st century and trillions of dollars of new investment. That’s the reality – and it doesn’t take a degree in physics or even a hand-held calculator to confirm it.

Make no doubt about it. This is the voice of big business defending the status quo. We may not need T. Boone Pickens’s approach to wind energy but surely we need a way out of fossil fuel production if the planet is to have a future, at least based on the calculation that climate change will lead to monstrous flooding in some areas of the planet and drought in others that will cost millions of lives.

Speaking of which, I have a sense that Counterpunch’s co-editor Jeff St. Clair is aware of the threat based on a link he posted to Facebook a while back. It led to this New Yorker article:

Nowadays, whenever there’s an Irene-like event—a huge storm, a terrible flood, a killer heat wave—the question is raised: was this caused by global warming? The very frequency with which this question is being asked these days should make people take notice, but the answer that comes back is usually squishy enough to allow them to forget about the issue until the next disaster occurs, at which point the process starts all over again. The problem here, as several commentators have pointed out this weekend, is that the question being posed is not the question we should be asking.

The standard answer to the question “Was Irene (or the recent flooding along the Missouri River, or the current record-breaking Texas drought, or [choose your own favorite example]) caused by global warming?” is: No one event can be definitively attributed to climate change (though in some cases, you can get pretty close). Hurricanes fall into the category of “weather,” which is driven partly by large and predictable forces and partly by those that are stochastic, or random.

How about posing the question this way: Are more events like Irene what you would expect in a warming world? Here the answer is a straightforward “yes.” In fact, experts have been warning for years that New York will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding as the planet heats up. In 2009, the New York City Panel on Climate Change, appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, concluded that, as a result of global warming, “more frequent and enhanced coastal flooding” was “very likely” and that “shortened 100-year flood recurrence period” was also “very likely.” Much of the problem simply has to do with sea levels—as these rise, any storm or storm surge becomes more dangerous. Marcus Bowman, an oceanography professor at Stony Brook University, has warned that the city could one day have “flood days,” the way it now has snow days.

Too bad that this viewpoint does not find a place on Counterpunch. It would be much more useful than Robert Bryce’s oil industry PR.


  1. If one is pressed for time, one can abandon Bryce’s Wall Street Journal entry after reading the the headline alone: “America Needs the Shale Revolution” Forget the rest, this says it all. Of course, in the twenty-first century and beyond, there are nation-state solutions to anything under the sun.

    Comment by dave r — September 1, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  2. Oh crap. Add “no” before the word “nation-state”.

    Comment by dave r — September 1, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

  3. I have to admit that even in Cockburn’s fantasy world, that he even permitted a positive mention of the “N-Word” boggles my mind. Cynically, he could simply be doing a “see, nuclear and natural gas, support one, you support the other” sort of tar-brushing. But it’s hard to say since science is hardly Counter Punch’s forte.

    I pay attention to the fossil and nuclear industries. I’ve never, ever, heard anyone from *either industry* tout the other as they are directly counterpoised to each other from a business interests point of view. You see the commercials for oil and, especially natural gas, they tout ‘petroleum’, wind and even solar.

    Wind advocate Joseph Kennedy, Jr, made the plea a few months ago at the Natural Gas Conference for Wind and Solar. He is quoted, to applause, that “Natural gas is ‘married’ to wind and solar” and should be seen as competition. He’s 100% right. But you will never see the coal and gas industries touting nuclear. They compete as energy sources.

    BTW…Al Gore being a “shill for nuclear” is quite ‘late’ and, very soft spoken. The person who won Gore to accept, as meekly as he does, nuclear energy, was Jim Hansen (his tech advisor on his film “An Inconvenient Truth”, who noted that we’ll never achieve 350ppm CO2 without a big ‘wedge’ of it.


    Comment by David Walters — September 1, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

  4. Sorry, Kennedy’s quote should be “NOT seen as competition with one another”. Here is a quote from another conference:


    The solar power sector and the natural gas industry need to build an alliance to get more government support and take over the energy sector from incumbents like Big Oil and King Coal, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said on Wednesday.

    The environmentalist spoke at the Solar Power International Conference being held in Anaheim, California, this week.

    “The alliance is just forming,” Kennedy told reporters after his remarks. He added that the natural gas industry has been “hiding under oil and they think Big Oil is going to take care of them. But they’re realizing Big Oil is never going to let them make a profit” and that companies like Chesapeake are realizing “that their future is with the environmental community and the renewable community.”

    He said the team-up also makes sense because power from natural gas can help balance out solar and wind-generated electricity on the grid, eliminating the problem of inconsistency on sunny days, for instance.

    So “Green-brushers” in the green movement are busy pimping big time for continued and expanded use of natural gas. This reflects the real utter confusion in the ruling class about where investments should go under the pressure of climate change on the one hand, and the crisis of capitalism on the other.

    Comment by David Walters — September 1, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

  5. Two points of information:

    1) Conservation: efficiency in the use of energy can be thought of as the largest untapped source of energy in the USA;

    2) Natural gas in combination with solar-thermal energy capture systems can offer efficient (not too much burning) and reliable (despite clouds and night) electrical energy/power.


    Electrical appliances in Japan can be twice as efficient as those used in the U.S. (modern European appliances are also more efficient). Most conservation and/or efficiency arises from behavioral choices: e.g., dry clothes in an electrically heated machine or outdoors on a clothes line (getting the scent freshening effect free). The profligate consumption of liquid fuels in the U.S. could be halved by reductions in automobile motor sizes; most of the excess power of US autos and trucks is idling on standby most of the time (it only takes about 40-50 hp to keep a vehicle moving steadily at 60-70 mph on level ground), and only comes into play for rapid acceleration — it is not needed for simple transport.

    The excess weight of US vehicles is due to size (which in itself need not be bad if used for passengers or cargo) and the loading in of luxuries: sound-proofing & padding, comfort and entertainment systems, new electronic gheegaws (internet!), power windows, seats, roofs, etc). Extra weight requires extra engine-size to accelerate the hulk quickly. Remember the 500 cc cars of italy, and the original Mini Cooper in England of late 50s and 1960s? They got great gas milage, and cost much less. Similar vehicles can be made today that produce lower emissions (already much lower than that of US monsters simply because of their lower motor size).

    Bryce is correct in stating that the excessive use of energy in the U.S. is an artifact of “expanding” business activity, i.e., selling stuff that uses energy (big-engined cars, plasma TVs, computer/game/electronic doodads). That is to say, energy is wasted in many ways because profits can be made by doing so.

    Another area of extreme waste of energy is the US military (military mobility is in gallons per mile).

    If one looks at the “American way” with an eye toward efficiency and lowering emissions, one could see many many ways to change behaviors and patterns, without really “lowering our standard of living.” For example: the tolls collected at bridges cause commuter jams that greatly increase air pollution (and diminish the fuel efficiency of ground transport); and why charge fares on public rail services?, make them as free as sidewalks and escalators, and fewer people will drive. Lost revenue? Ah, but savings nationally by reduced energy use, less pollution (reducing public health hazards and costs); and the operating expenses of public transit systems can be gotten through broad-based taxation (like we do now for most stairs, sidewalks and most roads). There are more examples described further below, in a lighter vein.

    Natural gas plus solar.

    It is difficult to see how solar cell (photovoltaic) production can increased by orders of magnitude to build enough solar-electric energy capture/conversion systems to provide the Earth’s people with the equivalent annual per capita electrical energy as used in the U.S.A. (13.3 kWh/year, or about 1500 Watts per person, around the clock). There are many sunny and open areas of the globe where systems that capture solar energy and convert it to heat can be built (e.g., central Spain, Sahara desert, Baja California, Basin & Range and Southwest USA). Such solar-thermal systems capture sunlight, convert it to heat which is absorbed by pipes flowing with oil (higher boiling point than water) and then in turn heat up water to low temperature steam, which then spins turbine-generators.

    Such solar-thermal plants can deliver significant energy, but lose generating capability with excessively overcast skies, and at night. So, to make them less sporadic, they are paired with natural gas furnaces, which are activated as a supplement (as preheaters or post-heaters) only as needed to keep the working fluid hot enough to drive the turbines. Obviously, a design (which includes siting) is better the less natural gas boost it needs over a year. A widespread use of solar-thermal systems could be thought of as vastly (exponentially?) improving the efficiency of burning natural gas. Some solar-thermal plants (plantations?) exist now in Spain, Israel, Arizona and Nevada; and even northern countries (seeking post-nuclear options), Germany in particular, are working on these.

    Back to conservation. I received the following (without a web link) from a friend. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but makes a good point.

    The Green Thing

    In the line at the store, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to him and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.” The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment.”

    He was right — our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day. Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

    We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.

    Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts [up to 3300 Watts!] — wind and solar power really did dry the clothes [~1000 Watts per meter of area at a perpendicular to the Sun]. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that old lady is right; we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

    Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. And the TV was not on all day long. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working or playing ball out side for hours so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right; we didn’t have the green thing back then.

    We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a plastic cup or bottle every time we had a drink of water. We didn’t use several Ziploc bags a day as we used bowls and reusable containers that we washed by hand each day. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then.

    Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

    But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?

    The Green Thing

    Comment by Manuel Garcia, Jr. — September 2, 2011 @ 1:41 am

  6. Excellent piece Lou. For a view of Bryce in action, I’d recommend the following:


    Insofar as James Hansen is correct, namely that if the tarsands gets developed it is “game over for the planet”- and there’s pretty good reason to think that he is-what Bryce is advocating for here is effectively mass suicide.

    Lord knows, I have my problems with reformist liberals like McKibben, but they are doing the right thing now by getting arrested in front of the White House. It’s hard to see how Cockburn and St. Clair can look themselves in the mirror.

    Comment by John Halle — September 2, 2011 @ 3:19 am

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