'The Boom' and 'The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’

What books on energy would you recommend?

September 22, 2015

The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World by Russell Gold. Published in April of 2014.

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein. Published in November of 2014.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m betting that you are not a fan of fracking. 

Our IHE community may be diverse, argumentative, and hard to pigeonhole - but I doubt that as a whole we are big fans of fracking.

So why should you, or anyone else in our IHE community, read a whole book about fracking?

To get going here, I first want to say that Russell Gold’s The Boom is an excellent book. Gold, the energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has written a terrifically balanced and informative book on the changing U.S. energy mix. 

What Gold does so well is put fracking within the context of the larger energy picture. He is deeply worried about the environmental and community impacts of the fracking wells that have sprouted like wild mushrooms across much of the landscape, but he does a good job of placing the costs and risks of fracking within the larger damages (and benefits) of our carbon driven economy.

The reason that I think that The Boom deserves to be read and discussed on campus is less because of our need to debate the merits of fracking, (I doubt many of us could be convinced that we’d want this for the community in which we live), but because energy is the defining story of our age. Without energy we would not have the networks and devices that increasingly mediate every aspect of our work. No energy and no iPhone, no Internet, no cloud computing, and no MacBook Air. No energy, no online learning.

Do you have a good idea where the electrons that are powering the device that you are using to read these words originated? Most likely, the power that you are using right now - and that I am using to compose this post - came from burning rocks (coal) or burning gas. Coal accounts for 39% of all electricity generation in the U.S., with natural gas (27%) a close second.  Nuclear accounts for 19%, and hydropower 6% - with all other renewables combined (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal) only accounting for 7% of all electricity.

The massive growth in electricity produced from fracking is a critical enabler for renewable energy growth, as natural gas power plants can be spun up quickly, and are able to deal with the variable loads caused by changes in the wind blowing or the sun shining. Want to reduce coal consumption (which you should if you care about carbon in the atmosphere), then you should think more positively about natural gas.

Where Gold is never pro fracking (again, he tries to give a balanced picture), Epstein is out to make an argument in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. I will not say too much about this book, as Epstein lost me after about chapter 3 when he moved from talking about the economic benefits of affordable and accessible energy to downplaying the impact of man-made climate change. It is a pity that Epstein decided to go this route, as I think his argument linking the growth of affordable energy to global economic development is pretty strong - and at least worth debating and discussing.  If you can find chapter 2, The Energy Challenge: Cheap, Plentiful, Reliable, Energy…For 7 Million People, and chapter, 3 The Greatest Energy Technology of All Time - then I think they would be worth your time to read. I wish that Epstein had stopped while he was ahead, as his polemical stance towards climate change will cut off any discussion about his ideas about the positive aspects of fossil fuels.  

I’m a huge fan of books about energy. Daniel Yergin’s books The Quest and The Prize are two of my all time favorites.  Steve Coll’s Private Empire is also great.  Levine’s The Powerhouse was pretty good. Bryce’s Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper got me thinking, although I am more positive about the potential of renewable fuels than he is.  Coal: A Human History is wonderful.

What books on energy would you recommend?

What are you reading?



Back to Top