Who’s Defining the Energy Debate

As part of the documentary I’m making about nuclear power, I’ve been looking into why it is that after nearly 40 years of recognizing the need to revolutionize the way in which we produce and consume energy, very little has actually been done in the way of fundamental change.  I suppose it should come as no surprise that the biggest impediment lies with those with the greatest vested interest in maintaining our addiction to fossil fuels: the fossil fuel industries.

While this observation might seem obvious, the degree to which the oil, gas and coal industries have helped to shape and define the terms of our energy debate, even within the environmental movement itself, has come as a bit of a shock.  Many oil and gas companies are touting renewable energy and conservation. A case in point is the banner above this very blog in which Shell Oil touts energy conservation.  A noble cause that I agree we should all embrace, and no doubt some of Shell’s senior executives do too.   A casual visitor to this website will likely leave with a favorable impression of Shell Oil as a company that is leading the way to transition away from fossil fuels through conservation and renewable energy.

Shell is just one of several oil and gas companies launching lavish green campaigns, trying to convince us they’re taking care of our energy problems.  We could laugh this off as mere green-washing and delude ourselves into believing that we environmentalists are the real winners in this arrangement, promoting our vision of a clean energy future on their dime.   But, historically, these campaigns have had a far more profound impact.

In the course of our research we’ve followed this trail dating back to the 1970’s of how fossil fuel companies have promoted wind, solar and conservation, and successfully positioned natural gas as a clean energy source, while encouraging, and in some cases (which we will reveal in our film) financing opposition to nuclear power, the only proven non CO2 emitting power source that has any real potential to practically eliminate the need for fossil fuels altogether.  While these companies have sought to burnish their green credentials with one hand, they have at the same time been active in financing efforts to create doubt about the science of climate change with the other. Meanwhile, their own scientists have long since concluded that climate change is in fact a very real problem that is being brought on by burning fossil fuels.

One counter-intuitive effect: a surprising number of nuclear scientists whom I’ve spoken to are climate change skeptics, even though climate change is also probably the best argument for expanding nuclear power.   Natural allies in the energy debate are now enemies in the political context, and this polarization paralyzes  every effort to change course.  This age-old tactic of divide and conquer seems to be playing itself out to the benefit of the status quo.  Since this tactic began back in the 1970’s, solar power has cut into just 0.1% of America’s electricity market, wind about 0.7%.   The fossil fuel industries have good reason not to regard these energy technologies as an existential threat.   Extraordinary conservation efforts in California have succeeded wonderfully in stabilizing the per capita growth in electrical energy demand, but their parallel push to rely increasingly on renewable energy rather than nuclear power has actually made the state even more dependent than ever on fossil fuels.

Turn on the TV on any given night and you’ll see oil company commercials showing beautiful images of green pastures with a sprinkling of shiny white wind turbines spinning quietly in the setting sun, leaving the subtle impression that A. renewable energy is ramping up to solve the energy/climate crisis, and B. these large energy corporations are working hard at making the renewable energy utopia depicted in the commercials into a reality.   ‘Nothing to worry about, we’re on it’ seems to be the message.

Meanwhile, the energy business goes on as usual, the planet gets warmer, the future for our children grows increasingly bleak, our national security is diminished and our 21st Century economy continues to rely on a dwindling and increasingly perilous 19th century energy source.

To quote David MacKay, the famed British environmentalist and renewable energy expert, when asked why he now believes in nuclear power, responded, “I don’t believe in nuclear power, I believe in arithmetic.”


  1. Don DeLillo
    United States
    May 1, 2014, 12:05 am

    Note – these are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo.

  2. NotASycophant
    June 13, 2013, 12:19 am

    Mr. Stone, I find the parade of sycophants no less than disgusting. In light of the HUGE, ONGOING, NON-FIXABLE catastrophe at Fukushima, I consider your infomercial for nuclear power CRIMINALLY IMMORAL. Did you know that there are still 450 TONS of fissioning corium sunk underground that TEPCO cannot even LOCATE? That radioactivity will be leaching into the Pacific Ocean FOREVER, some of it with million of years half-life, and contaminating everything up the food chain? Did you know that as of May 2012, 60% OF THE CHILDHOOD POPULATION in the area had already tested positive for DIABETES?? And that thyroid cancer is becoming epidemic after just two years? So poisoning an entire population (they burn the so-called “safe” nuclear waste everywhere) is just FINE, yet you have some serious problem with wind and water and sunshine? How dare you be so heartless as to not even CARE. To not even LOOK. You’re a real piece ‘o work. So I say, go live in Tokyo and display all your awards there while you are drinking, eating and breathing radiation poisoning. Just don’t say that it’s ME wishing bad things on you. You’re the who thinks that it is FINE. So go LIVE there. Meanwhile, you’re nobody’s hero. You’re a fraud. SHAME ON YOU for making this film.

  3. Gwyneth Cravens
    December 25, 2010, 2:58 pm

    Oil companies like Shell and Exxon-Mobil spend millions to promote a clean, green image but actually invest very little in clean-energy tech and fuels.

    The oil and gas industry spent $112 million in 2010 on lobbying.

  4. […] 0800060 – Exercise Desert Rock – 1951 In 1951, the Army, working with the Atomic Energy Commission, carried out the Desert Rock Exercises, an experiment to “dispel much of the fear and uncertainty surrounding atomic radiation and the effects of gamma and x-rays.” A tent encampment was set up about 27 miles from where the atomic explosions were detonated on the Nevada Proving Grounds. The encampment housed about 5000 Army soldiers, civilian observers and technicians. Troops spent hours in classes receiving training in radiation and nuclear weapons effects. The following is a recorded interview between a sergeant and a training officer prior to a blast: Question. “How many of your men would volunteer to go up and be in the foxholes?” (one-half mile from ground zero) Answer. “I guess about half a dozen.” Question. “Its quite a loud noise when that bomb goes off. . .would it do them any harm?” Answer. “No sir, not the noise, no.” Question. “How about the radiation? Do you think there is much danger?” Answer. “Radiation is the least of their worries that the men are thinking about.” Question. “I think most thought radiation was the greatest danger, didnt they? Where did they learn differently?” Answer. “They were, prior to our instructions here. We received a very thorough briefing.” For the Desert Rock I Exercise, the weapon was fired as an airburst. The majority of the troops were out in the open about seven miles away. The soldiers were told to crouch down and face away … For more on this topic you can read: https://www.greatenergychallengeblog.com/2010/12/whos-defining-the-energy-debate/ […]

  5. Anthony St. John
    San Diego
    December 21, 2010, 11:32 am

    Robert, your conclusions are absolutely true:


    The University of California has never been serious about protecting humanity from global warming:

    1) In the mid-1960s UC marginalized Charles Keeling with Draconian cuts to his budget, forcing him to abandon continuous monitoring efforts at the South Pole but he scraped together enough money to maintain operations at Mauna Loa which have continued to the present day. If Keeling hadn’t fought back against the UC PTBs, there would be no Keeling Curve today and we would be even worse off today if that is possible.

    2) In the 50s, Edward Teller was personally dedicated to producing controlled fusion during the 20th century, but he was also marginalized by the UC Powers That Be who found it far easier to make $Billions by producing humanity destroying hydrogen bombs for the military-industrial complex for over half a century instead.

    3) Even President Eisenhower warned us about UC in his 1961 Farewell Address “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    4) And today, former LLNL Director and current Secretary of Energy Chu has kept LLNL’s NIF dedicated to producing hydrogen bombs as his dominant priority, so he and his Dept. of Energy have absolutely no sense of urgency to protect humanity from global warming.

  6. Tom Blees
    December 19, 2010, 9:36 pm

    Wow, Robert, you seriously rock! I know how you were looking forward to this so your stand on principle here is more than the small gesture you make it out to be. I’m saving this page in case they take it down as an example of somebody walking the walk.

    By the way, Gwyneth, your point about California’s much-lauded stable per capita electrical usage being skewed by high-usage industries leaving the state is a point well-taken and one that is often missed.

    What’s truly ironic is that the front-line skirmishers against nuclear power are the environmental groups, in most cases unwittingly doing the bidding of the fossil fuel companies. It’s like sending into a battle the hoi-polloi cannon fodder before you commit your valuable forces. The sooner this is made clear the better.

  7. Alan Mairson
    Bethesda, Maryland
    December 18, 2010, 2:16 pm

    I’m sorry it came to this, Robert. But I understand your critique, and feel your pain. The Shell “partnership” not only diminishes the debate, but it puts our Society in an awkward position: What exactly is Shell buying? They give us money, and we give them…. what? I think the term is “brand equity” — some of the Green Halo that surrounds National Geographic. But I fear that when we swap that equity for cash, we get a short term financial boost for a long-term loss in stature.

    For more thoughts on why the NGS-Shell deal is a loser — for National Geographic, anyway — see:

    I’m wondering what the other bloggers here at The Great Energy Challenge think about your critique & decision. And I’m hoping they’ll chime in & join the conversation. Because that’s what this Challenge is all about, right? An honest exchange of viewpoints & ideas that will benefit our society.

    Thanks for taking a stand — and please keep us posted.

  8. Meredith Angwin
    December 18, 2010, 9:27 am

    Robert. I admire you for blogging AND for quitting. The terms of the debate are constantly defined by big fossil fuel companies, from the highest national levels (Shell, National Geographic) to individual power plants in the Northeast. For example, the Conservation Law Foundation, which is constantly bringing lawsuits to shut down Vermont Yankee, has a related group which helps “good” plants get sited. They helped get the permits for a natural gas plant in neighboring New Hampshire, about the same size as Vermont Yankee. From the top to the bottom, fossil money runs the debate.

    An article and some good comments!


  9. Robert Stone
    New York
    December 17, 2010, 10:35 pm

    For whatever it’s worth, this is my last blog for The Great Energy Challenge. I quit because I don’t want to be a party to Shell’s propaganda campaign to endear itself to the environmental community. I have no gripe against corporate sponsorship. It’s a vital necessity that as a filmmaker I fully understand and appreciate. But the nature of this particular corporate relationship crosses a very important line that I feel I’m tacitly endorsing through my participation as a blogger. It’s a ridiculously small gesture to quit, but I hope that my doing so will cause others to look more closely at this critically important component of our “great energy challenge”: the influence of the corporate power in defining the terms of the debate.