by Richard W. Caperton
Who will take radical steps to stop the transition to clean energy? That’s the question that underlies “Blowout,” the new book by retired Senator Byron Dorgan and David Hagberg. Because the answer is so straightforward (hint: it’s the oil companies), Dorgan and Hagberg have taken the unprecedented step of addressing the issue in a blood-soaked action thriller, instead of the typical non-fiction format we’re all so used to.
“Blowout” is based around a fictional clean energy research and development facility in North Dakota, which is very close to making a revolutionary technological breakthrough. Just as the final critical test approaches, the facility is attacked by a relatively incompetent gang of militia members, who have been hired by unknown outside interests. This attack, the resulting manhunt, and various other criminal hijinks make up the bulk of the plot.
Along the way, we’re treated to scenes of extreme violence in various North Dakota locations, as well as Venezuela and Washington, DC. There are also numerous detailed mentions of all kinds of exotic military firearms. For example, one character was previously shot with “a Barrett A2 .50 caliber U.S. sniper rifle,” and in another scene someone uses a “Knight PDW 6x35mm compact automatic carbine,” which presumably possesses an outstanding amount of killing power.
I’m glad they went the action route, because it’s actually pretty fun. We’ve all read the formulaic clean energy book, which goes something like this: we’re in an energy crisis, the solution is X, but X has some small problems holding it back, so we need a broad national commitment, which will be a win-win situation for everyone involved. “Blowout” is something entirely different: we’re in an energy crisis, the solution is an insanely complicated new technology that I can’t even begin to understand, developing this technology costs hundreds of billions of dollars, and special interests will go to unimaginable lengths to stop the research, including killing dozens of innocent civilians with weapons originally designed for big game hunting.
Unfortunately, this may be a case where fiction is stranger than truth. As Joe Romm has written countless times on this very blog, the solutions to the climate crisis are almost certainly the technologies we have with us today. Here’s how a character describes the new technology under development in “Blowout”:
We’re going to inject three classes of microbes directly into the coal seam [the facility] is sitting atop. One breaks down the long hydrocarbons in the deposit. The second converts those into organic acids and alcohols. And the third — methanogens — feed on the first two and convert them to methane that we pump to the surface and burn as fuel to power our turbines.
Right. Wouldn’t it be easier just to build a lot of existing renewable energy? And cheaper? In fact, it would be cheaper. The new technology in “Blowout” cost the government $650 billion, but extending the production tax credit for wind would cost less than one percent of that.
Now, it would obviously be a mistake to read too much into a work of fiction, especially one that has two authors. That said, it’s tempting to use this book to try to understand why Senator Dorgan wasn’t a bigger supporter of taking action on climate change when he was in the Senate. The obvious connection is that one of the bad guys in “Blowout” is a derivatives trader, which aligns perfectly with this quote from Dorgan from a December 2009 press release: ““I don’t support offering Wall Street a trillion-dollar cap and trade carbon securities market so the investment banks and speculators can trade securities and establish speculative prices that tell the American people how much their energy is going to cost.”
Dorgan’s tepid support for addressing climate change is especially frustrating when you consider it in the context of the first sentences of “Blowout”:
We may have already reached the carbon dioxide tipping point, which in effect means that even in the planet reduced its carbon dioxide emission to zero, it may take a thousand years for Earth to heal itself. As dramatic as this might sound, the situation is closer to reality than even Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was. Of course, doing nothing is not an option.
We have to act now, to at least mitigate the effects of the poisons we are pumping into the air.
That just about perfectly sums up the situation. One hopes that Senator Dorgan will remember this when thinking about what to work on in the real world, and not just his nascent career as a novelist.
Richard W. Caperton is the Director of Clean Energy Investments at the Center for American Progress.