Does history teach us nothing? Year after year, Congress talks about the need to develop a national energy policy, and yet all they really accomplish is increased government intervention in the energy industry, which raises costs for American consumers. Our continuing energy dialogue would greatly benefit from a better understanding of our energy past, present, and future. And if our lawmakers had at least a passing acquaintance with basic economic thought, they might actually succeed in developing an effective plan for our energy future.

This time, I hope we will try to understand more about energy and economics before we allow Congress to impose new regulations. To contribute to the debate, here are a few books and one very important article:

  • Done in Oil by J. Howard Marshall II. Marshall’s multi-decade career in the oil and gas industry is arguably one of the most interesting in all of U.S. energy history. Marshall’s work in oil began as an academic at Yale Law School, where he wrote scholarly articles on the East Texas hot oil war of the early 1930s. He went on to serve as a leading regulator of the petroleum industry during the New Deal and World War II. Marshall also held top positions with oil companies on both the East and West coasts. His fascinating and amusing autobiography, Done in Oil, captures the full panorama and unvarnished spirit of the U.S. oil industry as it was from the 1930s through the 1980s.
  • The Prize by Daniel Yergin. Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, this book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the sometimes tenuous and always reliant relationship we have with oil. Yergin traces the history of oil from Colonel Drake’s first oil well in Titusville, Penn., to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The oil business began as a freewheeling group of mavericks and morphed over time into a geopolitical commodity that allows third world nations to wield global power.

  • Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil. The best way to describe this book is on the dust jacket—“a tour of the state of the energy world.” Energy at the Crossroads discusses the history of energy use, our current energy mix, and prospects for the future. Smil is deeply skeptical of energy forecasts, largely because, as he outlines, forecast after forecast has failed to correctly assess the future. It would be hard to find a better overview of our current energy sources and prospects for the future than Energy at the Crossroads.
  • The Use of Knowledge in Society by Friedrich A. Hayek. Unlike the other publications on this list, Hayek’s work is an article, not a book. In just a few pages, Hayek explains why central planning, whether applied to an entire economy or an energy system, will fail, time after time. These insights allow readers to understand today’s energy policy and chart a course to a better future. (Download PDF)

  • Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy by Robert Bradley, Jr. This book applies classical liberal thought to demonstrate organizations’ success or failure and, in particular, the complex business event known as Enron. As part of this multi-disciplinary analysis, Capitalism at Work presents the history of energy and mineral resource thought from the time of W. S. Jevons in the 1860s to the more recent debate between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich.

Each of these works contributes significantly to our understanding of energy, energy policy, and economics. Congress would well serve the American people to heed these lessons before charging forward with any new energy “reforms.”

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