How the myths of scarcity and security haunt U.S. energy policy and keep it tied to the puppet strings of the House of Saud.
If oil didn’t exist, we’d invent it. That may sound like oil-company PR from the 1950s, but it’s true: Petroleum’s unique chemistry offers a combination of features—ease of storage and transport, safety, energy density—unmatched by any other energy form. Indeed, no alternative-energy project has yet come close to these attributes. That’s why petroleum still fuels 95% of global transportation and is the world’s biggest traded commodity—even now, during the Covid crisis.
You won’t learn any of that from Robert Vitalis, a professor of politics at Penn and former director of the school’s Middle East Center. His latest book is not about the physics of energy or the energy business; it’s about what the author calls “oilcraft,” closer not to “statecraft”—pragmatic diplomacy that treats oil as just another commodity—but to “witchcraft”: a fetishistic belief that “oil is power,” somehow a mystical thing apart.
That oil indeed remains a vital commodity, however, fuels what Mr. Vitalis characterizes, in his subtitle, as “the myths of scarcity and security that haunt U.S. energy policy.” Both “right-wing grand strategists” and “left-wing critics of capitalist imperialism,” he says, embrace these myths, which underlie America’s longstanding bipartisan pursuit of a “special relationship” with the House of Saud. The core theme of “Oilcraft” is that this policy is misguided and unnecessary.
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; a partner in Cottonwood Venture Partners, an energy-tech venture fund; and the author of the recent report “Mines, Minerals and ‘Green’ Energy: A Reality Check.”
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