Book Review

Freedom From Oil, (2008, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill).
Written by: David Sandalow

Reviewed by: Evan Croen, November 2007

In Freedom from Oil, David Sandalow employs a unique style to analyze America’s dependence on oil and present solutions for it.  Instead of writing a traditional non-fiction work, he uses memos exchanged within a fictional presidential administration (directly after the Bush administration) to examine the challenge of achieving oil independence both technically and politically.  As the president writes in the opening memo, “I plan to deliver an address from the Oval Office one month from today.  The topic will be oil dependence.”  Fictional cabinet members and advisors respond to the president’s request for help with memos of their own, accompanied by newspaper clippings about business and community leaders pursuing various initiatives to lessen America’s dependence on oil.  The result is a comprehensive and engaging overview of the problems caused by oil dependence, the solutions available to mitigate it, and the political process within the White House involved in major policy decisions.

Fundamentally, Sandalow sees the lack of significant substitutes as the major problem with America’s oil usage.  Oil provides an astounding 96% of our transportation fuel.  As a result of this lack of substitutes, Sandalow’s characters explain in the first section of the book, oil exacerbates national security issues, harms the environment, and leaves our economy vulnerable to supply disruptions.  On the national security front, our oil dependence strengthens Al-Qaeda’s recruiting and financing, enriches our enemies with significant oil reserves, endangers our troops by requiring numerous fuel convoys in dangerous areas, and corrodes democratic institutions of oil exporting states.  On the environmental front, global warming (44% of U.S. CO2 emissions come from oil), urban air pollution, and oil spills are the major concerns.  On the economic front, though our economy has become more resilient to high oil prices, the lack of substitutes for oil leaves the American economy, individual families, and the economies of our trade partners vulnerable to price increases from supply disruptions.  All of these, Sandalow’s fictional administration members argue, justify significant government intervention to end America’s oil dependence.

The second section of Sandalow’s book focuses on potential solutions.  The Secretary of Transportation recommends federal purchases of and consumer tax credits for plug-in hybrid vehicles, which could lower CO2 emissions even drawing power from traditional coal plants.  The Secretary of Agriculture extols the virtues of corn-based ethanol, as well as the promise of cellulosic ethanol, recommending continued production incentives (pegged to the price of oil) and increased R&D funding.  The U.S. Trade Representative calls for the end of the ethanol tariff to increase supply of sugar based ethanol.  The Secretary of Transportation recommends the reformulation of CAFE standards into fuel reduction and energy efficiency (FREEdom) standards, setting gradually increasing fuel economy standards by weight rather than by type of automobile.  The Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors suggests instituting a steadily rising gasoline tax as a means of controlling oil demand.  The Secretary of Energy promotes research into clean coal technologies, advocates the formation of a national fuel standard setting gradually decreasing limits on the carbon content of U.S. fuel, and downplays the role hydrogen will have in near-term efforts to wean the U.S. off oil.  The Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development recommend “smart growth” policies, including a dramatic shift of funding from road construction to mass transit construction.  And finally, the Secretary of State crafts a diplomacy strategy to spread oil independence to our trade partners by including the issue in the president’s personal diplomacy and to manage oil exporters’ backlash by promoting economic diversity within those countries through programs such as USAID.

In the third and final section of the book, the president decides to employ a mixture of all of these measures in his/her policy response, but worries that the response is too “big government.”  The Secretary of Energy points out, however, that the current situation is a result of “big government’s” support of the oil industry and that a policy of non-intervention could be disastrous to the economy.  The book closes with the transcript of an inspiring address to a joint session of congress speech aimed at promoting the policies presented throughout the book and creating bipartisan support for such a plan.

Overall, the book has much to offer.  Perhaps most unique to it is the view of White House politics afforded the reader.  As a former assistant secretary of state and senior director on the National Security Council staff, Sandalow is certainly an authority on the White House politics.  Just as in real administrations, the cabinet members and advisors promote policies that benefit their respective agencies, disagree on key issues, and vie for influence within the administration.  Also instructive is the level of detail involved in policy decisions.  Issues are described economically with a few helpful statistics and some relevant anecdotes, but not much else.  It is easy to see how such a process could be hijacked by a cabinet member with an agenda.  Another great aspect of this book is the wide overview of the relevant issues related to oil dependence, the possible solutions to it, and the business and community leaders involved in solutions.  As described in the summary above, Sandalow’s analysis uncovers major reasons for a shift in U.S. policy.  The most unexpected of which is the threat to soldiers from having to defend a large number of fuel convoys travelling to dangerous positions.  Included in the discussion of this threat is the interesting story of General Richard Zilmer who is pushing for deployment of solar panels to generate power in Iraq, rather than continuing the use of petroleum.  The descriptions of solutions are just as good, covering even more ground.  For example, the discussion of plug-in hybrids and electric cars addresses the issues of electrical capacity (not a problem), global warming and urban air pollution (much less that with traditional cars), and cost and battery reliability issues (addressable through tax credits and government backing of battery warranties).  Sandalow includes a profile of Martin Eberhard, CEO and founder of Tesla Motors, who is pursuing a novel approach to the electric car market by developing high end vehicles to label electric cars as “cool and cutting edge.”  The book is filled with such interesting anecdotes.  Finally, the book is simply a fun, utopian romp.  It is a quick read involving a truly driven and interested presidential administration and ending with an inspiring call to action invoking John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

The book is not without its flaws, however.  In choosing to address a large number of issues in a way that represents real internal White House discourse, the level of analysis and discussion of the relevant issues is not what it could be presented in another form.  Because of the quick hitting style, Sandalow glosses over important aspects of coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology, for example.  He points out that such fuels could produce double the lifecycle CO2 emissions and mentions a few means of mitigation, including carbon capture and sequestration, selling by-products of the CTL process, and mixing biomass with coal.  But he does not go further to provide the status of mitigation technologies, the break-even oil price levels, and the precise policy instruments that would be required to engender a more environmentally friendly CTL industry.  In addition, he does not address how to bridge the political divide between those who want CTL with strict CO2 controls and those who simply want CTL (69 senators recently voted for one of two CTL amendments to the energy bill this summer, so this is an important issue).  Perhaps the most glaring problem with the book is how little space the book devotes to gasoline taxation.  He and his fictional characters seem to realize just how tough it will be to sell a gas tax increase to politicians and the American public, but it generally feels as though he just threw it in.  In addition, Sandalow does not engage in any significant discussion of the overlap of a gas tax and fuel efficiency requirements, adding to the sense that the gas tax measure was not fully thought out.  This, however, may be an inherent problem to the writing of a comprehensive survey of political tools to end oil dependence, as gasoline taxation would certainly provide material for entire books.  Finally, in general, consideration of political feasibility is given short shrift.  While Sandalow touches on it, such as in the suggestion of a “grand bargain” with Detroit to facilitate greater fuel efficiency and the invitation of a senator of the opposite party to speak during the fictitious final speech, he could have been addressed it much more.  The book was geared more towards identifying the necessary tools for combating oil dependence than developing a fully nuanced political strategy for their implementation.

Despite these flaws, the book is an outstanding accomplishment and an enjoyable read.
It would be a particularly good read for anyone interested in the inner workings of the White House in relation to energy policy, anyone interested in energy policy in general, anyone interested in measures to combat oil dependence, and anyone interested in business opportunities to combat oil dependence.  Because of its format and style, it would probably be very effective in educating time-strapped politicians on the matter as well.  Its uniqueness and structure make it interesting, easy to follow, and a valuable learning resource.  The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Frances Beinecke, says it best on the back cover: “Freedom from Oil should be at the top of the reading list for America’s next president.”  While not the most in depth work on energy available, it presents sufficient content in a compelling style to persuade those who read it that something can be done politically to take major steps towards independence from oil.  Hopefully the next president is reading.

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