Book Review: David Sandalow’s Freedom from Oil

freedomfromoil.jpgThe phrase “oil addiction” has been uttered and written countless times since George W. Bush used it in his 2006 State of the Union address. While many still rightly question the current President’s commitment to ending US dependence on oil, David Sandalow, assistant secretary of state and senior director on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, notes that the concept of “oil addiction,” and the failure to address it substantively, both predate the current administration. His new book, Freedom from Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States’ Oil Addiction, traces the use of the phrase back to the Nixon administration, and observes that every president since has struggled with the concept… and ultimately failed to do anything to address it.

Despite his political leanings, though, Sandalow’s purpose in Freedom from Oil isn’t to criticize the current administration, or to bemoan the overall lack of progress in lessening American dependence on oil. Rather, he sets a much more daunting challenge for himself: illustrate how the US can overcome its dependence on this resource that’s responsible for environmental damage, security concerns, and economic indebtedness to some of the world’s most unsavory governments. In presenting his ideas, Sandalow deftly illustrates the depth of our oil addiction… and the complex circumstances any administration will have to address in order to set the country on a path towards a low-carbon energy future.

That complexity could lead a reader to expect a dry, even dull, policy tome, but Sandalow manages to demonstrate not only his very impressive mastery of the subject matter, but also an ability to present it in a compelling context for almost any reader. He creates a fictional situation for framing the topic: a new President (perhaps the next president) wants to give a major speech on the topic of oil addiction, and assigns advisers and cabinet members to write memos containing background information and policy recommendations on topics as varied as oil’s impact on national security, plug-in cars, “smart growth,” and diplomatic strategies. These memos, as well as responses to them, form the bulk of the book’s content; Sandalow also includes “short profiles of nine extraordinary individuals,” including venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Tesla Motors founder Martin Eberhard, the Apollo Alliance’s Jerome Ringo, and “Senator-Farmer” Jon Tester.

By creating this framework, Sandalow not only demonstrates the broad consequences of American oil dependence, but also shows the competing interests that emerge from addressing the topic, and the political landmines that the fictional president must confront in order to create a coherent set of policies and goals. Controversial topics including increasing domestic oil production and coal mining, moving towards a “hydrogen economy,” raising the national gasoline tax, and sequestering CO2 emissions. Many readers won’t agree with the conclusions reached by the “characters” in the book; few, however, will be able to argue that the claims made and facts presented aren’t both compelling and disturbing.

Sandolow himself makes clear that the conclusions reached in the “president’s” speech aren’t “the only answers to the problem of oil dependence… They are an attempt to grapple with one of the most challenging questions of our times.” Throughout the book, he makes clear that no political party or politician has all the answers to this issue. Any party or candidate who’s being honest with their constituents, though, will not only have to address this issue, but also exhibit genuine leadership and courage to change the course we’re on. As Bill Clinton once said during his ’92 campaign, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

Freedom for Oil includes a forward by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, and leaders from both side of the aisle, including former Vice President Al Gore, and former head of the CIA James Woolsey, have praised it. Oil addiction is one of the few problems upon which politicians of all ideological stripes agree… now it’s time to act on that agreement.

  1. Travis Skinner

    Hi, I had to read this for my core class for the Master’s of Environmental Studies Program from the Evergreen State College. Here is the essay I wrote in response:

    “Freedom from Oil” is an important introduction to understanding political interest group’s persuasive techniques. It has little weight in actually offering advice to reduce our nations “dependence” on energy. Mr. Sandalow has done a terrific job rubbing the backs of a bunch of people that could potentially profit from shifting away from oil. This is an important technique to utilize, however the underlying problem of our nation’s addiction to energy is superficially mentioned.

    Out of the 215 pages of this book, 7 pages are dedicated to the built environment. I laughed through all 7 of the pages about “smart growth” and I would enjoy reiterating what I sardonically digested. I have been researching about “smart growth” for about 2 years. I cringe at the mention of term because it is transformed into a dichotomy of walkable urbanism versus drivable sub-urbanism. Walkable urbanism is so commonly, that it is almost sad, mentioned in stark opposition to the suburbs. The problem with making things black and white is everything is either suburbs or “smart growth.” I am not a fan of the jargon of “smart growth” or of the development practices that are commonly referenced as examples of “smart growth” but there are very important concepts that are couched within this title. These concepts are age old. They stretch back to the way humans have built since they started building things. They only strayed away from this model 60 years ago when the federal government supported a single pattern of development.

    The text reinforces the uselessness of building intelligently. Sandalow makes blanket statements explaining how smart growth is ineffectual. “Policies often take many years to implement, during which time other variables (such as oil prices and characteristics of the vehicle fleet) change substantially” (Sandalow, 152). Also, “To reduce traffic congestion, congestion pricing is a far more effective tool,” (Sandalow, 153). He gives 7 pages to explain about “smart growth” and spends most of the text explaining how it is ineffectual. As I sit in the wee hours of the night and contemplate why a man who is the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy and International Affairs and was a senior fellow at Brookings Institute from 2004 to 2009 cannot find anything better to say about building differently then the patterns that have put us in this energy crisis I cannot fathom why.

    The icing on the cake in this book is always the key points “From the Desk of the President.” The points mentioned, in a nut shell, are “Americans drive more and enjoy it less”, “more roads don’t cure traffic congestion”, “federal policies favor road building over mass transit,” and “telecommuting can cut oil use while improving productivity and quality of life.” (Sandalow, 157) All of these are points that can be deduced from the essay, however the one solution gathered from the text is telecommuting, at least go with the increase mass transit! I am a huge supporter of telecommuting, but this does not even address the fact that people have (this is a perspective/paradigm) to drive everywhere they go. Making all cars run on ethanol and batteries does not solve the issue. We can not sustain traveling huge distances to get what we need. It does not fit into the model we have to live in, reality.

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