The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Zero-Sum Fallacy

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 31, 2011

Question: Why do some insist on making the energy debate a zero-sum game? Going forward, the United States should be marshalling all of its energy resources and resist arguments that pit one kind of energy against another. Global energy demand is going to continue rising, drawing on existing and emerging sources and underscoring the wisdom of an all-of-the-above energy strategy.

Unfortunately, the point is missed by some. For example, in this post Mother Nature Network blogger Karl Burkhart lauds a proposed Wyoming wind farm while criticizing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada's oil sands region to U.S. refiners. The headline, "How would you spend $7 billion," plays off similar price tags for the two projects, suggesting a choice must be made between them.

Indeed, Burkhart depicts one (wind) as virtuous and the other (oil) as, well, much less so. The oil pipeline would benefit a single company and risk the water supply of millions, he writes. "It really does feel like a line has been drawn in the tarry sand," he concludes. "Our nation faces a choice. Which way do we want to go?"

First, let's set the record straight on the pipeline. More than a single company would benefit from the Keystone XL. It's estimated the project would create 10,000 U.S. jobs immediately and more during the two-year construction phase alone. Further, the Canadian Energy Research Institute calculates that the pipeline would generate 45,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2015 and 85,000 by 2020. Already, nearly 1,000 companies from 47 states are involved in oil sands development, which would be enhanced by the pipeline's construction.

As for the threat to water supplies, three separate environmental reviews by the State Department have called the pipeline's risk minimal.

Then there's the energy, up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day from a secure, reliable source: Canada. More on the pipeline's virtues from the National Association of Manufacturers, here, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

Back to the larger, either/or energy argument. Yes, wind is an important technology, especially in the context of growing demand for electricity. But America also will need oil and natural gas in the future. As the Energy Information Administration notes, they still will provide about 55 percent of our energy in 2035. We also need energy from wind and other sources - which is why the oil and gas industry spent $58.4 billion on zero- and low-carbon technologies between 2000 and 2008, more than either the federal government or all other U.S.-based private industries combined.

Energy isn't and shouldn't be a zero-sum game. It sets up a false choice that distracts from the strategic thinking and policies needed to secure the country's energy future.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.