Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon

Now in general release, Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams, an electronics tech stationed aboard the ill-fated drilling rig. The explosion and fire, which occurred off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, killed eleven Transocean hands and led to the largest oil spill in the history of the U.S.

Good golly, was that just 6-1/2 years ago? A lot has happened since then.

Historically, popular culture’s treatment of the oil industry has run the gamut from stereotype to caricature. There Will Be Blood examined a legal principle called “the rule of capture”: “I drank your milkshake!” On TV, Dallas gave us characters more patently duplicitous and unlikeable than any of the 2016 Presidential candidates. (OK, so I exaggerate.) My favorite line of all time is from Urban Cowboy, when the leggy brunette Texan tells Travolta, “My daddy is in oil … and all that that implies.”

Deepwater Horizon doesn’t go there. Watching Deepwater Horizon, you get to meet the truly decent folk of the Gulf South that it has been my pleasure to work with and live around for most of my career. It rings true, it has heart, and it cares about getting the details right.

The screenplay was largely based on an excellent article in the New York Times which appeared in December 2010. I read the article and blogged about it at the time; the movie was clearly storyboarded from the sequence of events in the article. As I watched the movie, it played out pretty much as I had imagined from reading the article.

I won’t quibble about technical details; most of the things that seem “wrong” to a petroleum engineer are intentional; they help the narrative along. Deepwater Horizon, after all, is not a documentary. On only one occasion did I lean over in the theater to tell my wife, “That would never happen.” It’s the scene where the BP exec from Houston shows up at the Port Fourchon helicopter terminal in a necktie. A necktie!

Every story needs a villian: John Malkovich plays Vidrine, the BP “company man”, one of two operator representatives on the rig. (Rigs are mostly staffed by the rig owner’s personnel and various service personnel.) Malkovich’s Cajun accent owes a lot to James Carville, but I must admit he was pretty good, for a Yankee. Seriously, most non-native actors attempting a Cajun accent end up sounding like Justin Wilson on mind-altering drugs (See Adam Sandler in The Waterboy.)

The story is told from Wahlberg’s character’s perspective. He’s a relatable everyman, and does a fine job of it, even if he did experiment with several alternate pronunciations of “Schlumberger”. Kurt Russell as Mr. Jimmy, the rig’s OIM — essentially the captain of the ship — was terrific.

The depiction of the blowout and fire in the movie is harrowing and unforgettable. I can only compare it to the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan in power and intensity.

(Not that this rates a Plot Spoiler! warning): The movie narrative places culpability for the accident clearly on Vidrine and BP. The spill, cleanup and economic settlements would ultimately cost BP $40+ billion. As a corporation, BP plead to criminal charges and paid a large fine. The individual prosecutions dragged some people through the ringer but mostly went nowhere.

In the real world, most people are just folks looking to make a way for themselves and their families. Deepwater Horizon succeeds in telling the story of regular folks who find themselves — literally in a matter of minutes — face-to-face with earth’s untamable fury. On deepwater rigs, these men and women work 21-day shifts because we – and our thirst for oil – demand it. They work long shifts in the elements out of sight of land, and we forget about them, until an accident puts them in the news.

Go see Deepwater Horizon.

[At the time, I blogged extensively about the blowout, spill and aftermath. There’s a good selection at my Greatest Hits page, where about half of the posts are BP spill-related. Along the way, I got one thing wrong about the movie.]

Update 10/7/16: We saw Deepwater Horizon a couple of weeks after seeing Sully, and it struck me that there is a common thread between the two. Both portray human reactions to unprecedented catastrophes. One of the problems with events of this nature — “Black Swan” events per Nassim Nicholas Taleb — is that the human mind is programmed to force-fit new data into a “normal” narrative. They often don’t recognize just how bad their predicament is until it’s too late.

According to Taleb, the real world does not follow this statistical conceit [of a bell-shaped so-called normal distribution of possible events], even if it makes the math easy. The real world is governed more by Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will.”), and by Hale’s Corollary to Murphy’s Law (“There is no limit to how bad things can get.”).

Both movies also portray Federal investigations into tragedies. The nature of the beast is that someone has to be to blame. The more complicated the regulatory regime, the easier the job of the accident investigator. The accident investigators write the regs. If I sound cynical, it’s because I am.

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‘What’s Wrong With This Picture’, Denver Edition


On a recent visit to the Mile High City, we stayed downtown. We visited the area near Union Station, an area that attracts all types of people.

One day, at mid-day, we saw a young man, mid-twenties maybe, sitting on the bench pictured above, holding the cardboard sign. He fit every stoner stereotype: skinny, dreads, stocking cap, and a dopey smile. He had fashioned the cardboard sign you see in the picture. (I’ll give him credit for that much initiative.) When accordioned open, it reads “WE NEED WEED”.

Openly panhandling for drug money is one thing. The funny thing is that this picture was taken while I was on my morning walk the next day about 8:00. This must be a valuable bench. Do panhandlers respect property rights? I assume the sign gimmick works for the kid — would a carpenter hold his parking space with his toolbox?


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You’re troubled that Donald Trump ‘could have’ paid no taxes for 18 years. Can I then infer …

… that you support a flatter, fairer tax plan? A tax plan that closes many of the provisions of the tax code that a real estate developer would call ‘encouraging a public/private partnership’ but you call ‘loopholes’?

Because such plans exist. Here’s one. Here’s another.

Hillary Clinton says she plans to pay for new programs by targeting the top 1% of taxpayers. I think she’s disingenuous, but no matter. It won’t work, simply because people who are in that top 1% would rather pay an army of lawyers, CPAs and lobbyists rather than pay top rate on their full income. Hillary assumes they would sit still and pony up their fair share, but they never have before and they’re not about to start just because Hill is in the W. House.

Back in the olden days (1981) the tax code was broken. Tax rates (>70%) that were designed to be punitive to ‘the rich’ encouraged drilling dry holes for the write-off, building rail cars to sit empty on the sidings, and investing in bull semen when there weren’t even any bulls. Of course, setting up these tax shelter kept legions of lawyers and accountants busy, but no value was created.

Reagan dropped the top tax rate to 28%, if memory serves, and closed the loopholes that encouraged non-productive activity. Tax shelters shuttered overnight. The economy boomed. (Yes, gov’t deficits grew. Reagan never had a Republican Congress.)

A complex tax code empowers the political class. It gives politicians levers to push and pull and it makes lobbying and influence-buying/selling smart business. Just ask Mr. Trump. Then ask all those investment bankers and corporate sleazeballs who paid $250 K for a 20-minute speech.

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Father Gaia, on the Green Movement: “It’s a religion, you see. It’s totally unscientific.”

At 97, James Lovelock, futurist and creator of the Gaia Hypothesis, is just hitting his stride. And it’s causing some concern among his acolytes. (The Gaia Hypothesis holds that the Earth is more a self-regulating organism life form than a ball of molten iron and silicates. It’s a foundational premise of much of modern environmentalism.)

I needed a cigarette after reading this article in The Guardian. (h/t

What has changed dramatically, however, is his position on climate change. He now says: “Anyone who tries to predict more than five to 10 years is a bit of an idiot, because so many things can change unexpectedly.” But isn’t that exactly what he did last time we met? “I know,” he grins teasingly. “But I’ve grown up a bit since then.”

[Lovelock] nowadays feels “laid back about climate change”. All things being equal – “and it’s only got to take one sizable volcano to erupt and all the models, everything else, is right off the board” – he expects that before the consequences of global warming can impact on us significantly, something else will have made our world unrecognisable, and threaten the human race.

Lovelock maintains that, unlike most environmentalists, he is a rigorous empiricist, but it is manifestly clear that he enjoys maddening the green movement. “Well, it’s a religion, really, you see. It’s totally unscientific.”

[He] has withering contempt for environmentalists’ opposition to fracking. “You see, gas in America is incredibly cheap, because of fracking,” he says. But what about the risk of triggering earthquakes? He rolls his eyes.

“I’m not anti-green in the sense that I’m in favour of polluting the world with every damn thing we make. I think we’ve got to be careful. But I’m afraid, human nature being what it is, the thing gets exaggerated out of all proportion, and the greens have behaved deplorably instead of being reasonably sensible.”

Lovelock thinks that by the end of the century self-replicating robot technology will obviate the need for humans.

Will [the robots] care about rising temperatures? “They won’t give a fourpenny f*** about the temperature, because to them the change will be slow, and they can stand quite a big change without any fuss. …”

I highly recommend reading it all. Man, would I love to have a beer with this guy.

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Ten Tunes for a Sunday Morning

  1. Down With Disease, Phish
  2. Okayalright, moe.
  3. Hesitating Beauty, Billy Bragg & Wilco
  4. Houses on the Hill, Whiskeytown
  5. Airline to Heaven, Wilco
  6. When the Roses Bloom Again, Billy Bragg & Wilco
  7. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding, Elvis Costello
  8. Take Me to the River, Talking Heads
  9. Young Americans, David Bowie
  10. Lost in the Supermarket, The Clash

The “Thumbprint Radio” feature of Pandora is very good. There’s a great, eclectic selection of music here, if a bit heavy on Woody Guthrie-penned lyrics (#3, #5, #6). A gifted songwriter and poet with political passion; I’ll give him that.

My pick of this group is #4. Ryan Adams is one of the best.

But for a Sunday morning, you could do worse than #5:

There’s an airline plane
Flies to heaven everyday
Past the pearly gates
If you want to ride this train
Have your ticket in your hand
Before it is too late
If the world looks wrong
And your money’s spent and gone
And your friend has turned away
You can get away to heaven
On this aeroplane
Just bow your head and pray
Them’s got ears, let them hear
Them’s got eyes, let them see
Turn your eyes to the lord of the skies
Take this airline plane
It’ll take you home again
To your home behind the skies . . .
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Royalty: It’s Not Just for Royalty Anymore #fracking

A recent article in the New York Times considered disparity of income distribution in the U.S. An attached graphic, reproduced and annotated below, shows the income threshold to be in the top 1% of income earners, by county, in the year 2013. (Click the link and look at the graph. Say what you will about the Old Grey Lady, but she publishes some of the best graphics around.)

The Times sniffs that some of the high-bar counties are actually in flyover country, for God’s sake.

[The] rich are also moving beyond the traditional hubs of the Northeast and California, creating some unlikely 1-percenter enclaves, such as Wyoming [i.e, Jackson Hole – ed.]. North Dakota also moved up the 1-percenter ranks — from 45th to ninth from 1979 to 2013 — as the oil boom lifted the fortunes of its fortunate.  [emphasis added]



What’s the deal? Are jet-setters suddenly flocking to #4 McKenzie Co., North Dakota, or Hemphill, Karnes or DeWitt Co., Texas (not in the top 10, but all in the “dark blue” bar of > $800,000 to qualify for 1% status).

Surely, most of the wealth in these rural counties is due to mineral royalties, the existence of which is apparently not taught in journalism school. When a landowner makes a lease with an oil operator, he normally gets an up-front “bonus” for the lease that could be hundreds up to many thousands of dollars per acre. If drilling happens and in successful, the landowner bears 0% of the cost but retains royalty, a share of the revenue — off the top — that may be 15 to 25%.

So, in round numbers, North Dakota produced 1 million barrels of oil a day in 2013. The wellhead price averaged $90 per barrel in 2013 — at 20% the royalty share was about $18. That’s $18 million per day distributed among the state’s royalty-owning interests — almost $6.6 billion for the year. That’s just royalties, not bonuses and other payments to landowners. The oil company’s other costs — drilling investments, equipment, payroll, utilities, insurance, taxes*, etc., etc., — are separate; they are paid out of the operator’s share of revenue. (* North Dakota’s state severance tax is 11.5% of wellhead revenues, separate and apart from landowner royalties.)

(The average price was $41 in 2015; even though rates were higher, overall revenues to landowners was probably half the 2013 level. But still!)

Many of the beneficiaries of this income are the farmers and ranchers who have scratched and clawed an existence in unforgiving climates of the Great Plains and West and South Texas. Fortune has surely smiled on them, but they are not a class of fortunate silver-spooners The Times would have you imagine.


North Dakota Crude Oil Production in thousands of barrels per day since 1980. (

Another recent headline: Study shows fracking resulted in lower mortgage defaults

Despite the negativity many associate with fracking, the controversial technique for extracting oil and natural gas from the earth had a positive impact on mortgage defaults in areas where fracking occurred, according to research by a Clemson University finance professor.  . . .

“When there’s discovery of a mineral resource, a property becomes more than a place to live. The mineral rights are tied to property ownership. If a person defaults on the mortgage and loses the property, they lose the mineral rights and the potential revenue they could have generated from those rights,” Shen said. [Lily Shen is assistant professor of finance in the College of Business.]

With all due respect, my explanation is much simpler. Mineral extraction on private lands directly benefits not only the property values of landowners, but their cash flows too. The build new houses, buy new cars and trucks and furniture, deposit their money in local banks. Not only that, the oil company activity supports jobs and supply and service companies across the spectrum: hotels, restaurants, contractors. Severance taxes and property taxes benefit host states and local taxation districts. And all this income is federally taxable, too, so there’s that.

Ironically, the thrust of the original Times story was this:

The new peaks and valleys of America’s elite have made national definitions less and less useful. The 1 percent is no longer the very top layer of the national economy, but a much deeper slice of residents in high-income, high-cost states like New York, Connecticut and California.

The shift has important policy and cultural implications. Calls to tax the 1 percent nationally are really calls to tax the top 5 or 10 percent in the richest states — while missing the top 1 percent in many Western and Southern states.

“A tax on the 1 percent is increasingly a regional tax,” Mr. Price said. “On average, more folks will be touched by higher rates in New York than, say, West Virginia.”

Nationally, the 1% threshold income is $389,000 per year. A mere $389 K doesn’t feel “rich” in Fairfield, Connecticut, or Marin County, California. My response:

  • Life’s a b*tch.
  • Consider a move to flyover country.
  • You’re still voting for Hillary?



NASA satellite image. “Light pollution” from drilling rig activity in sparsely populated areas indicated by arrows.

 Cross-posted at RedState.

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Six Reasons Why I’m Less Afraid of President Donald Trump Than President Hillary Clinton

1. President Clinton would have a lapdog press. Not so President Donald Trump.

Investigate journalists whose careers were inspired by Woodward and Bernstein have become jaded hacks and tools providing cover for the powerful. Clintonian prevarication has become a trait the press seems to admire and encourage rather than expose and punish.

We’ve seen how this plays out. Reasoned opposition to a Clinton policy will be labeled misogyny, just as opposition has been labeled racism for the last eight years.

The press uniformly hates Trump. They will be a check on his power.

2. The DOJ and FBI have been thoroughly politicized, and the IRS has been weaponized, under Democratic rule.

When the FBI is doing document dumps on Friday, 5 p.m., you’ve got a problem. Trump might try to abuse them, too, but it would require significant change of course. Also, see Item #1.

3. The Democrats’ open-borders policy is not about the welfare of the immigrants. It’s about guaranteeing their party a permanent electoral majority.

Will Trump build a wall? That’s all rhetoric for the rubes. But if all he does is tighten down on sanctuary cities, it will be an improvement over current policy.

4. Our nation’s economy is strangling on non-legislated, executive branch regulation.

Trump understands this, and has promised to rein it in. In any case, he won’t make it worse. Hillary will.

5. The Democratic governor of Louisiana has declared war on oil companies. A Democratic president will empower and embolden him.

The oil and gas industry is vital to Louisiana, my adopted home. I’ve spent 36 of my 38-year career here, and I’d hoped to have a few left to go. John Bel Edwards and the trial lawyers who put him in office are in full-scale assault against my industry, and it’s not about “the environment” or “the children”, it’s about “the money”. By the end of Edwards’ first term (2019), there may be no Louisiana oil and gas industry left to rescue. (More on this from Joe Cunningham at RedState, “Here’s Why You Don’t Vote for Democrats to Punish Republicans“.)

This one may seem a little parochial, but I take it personally. Trump seems to understand that absent the oil and gas boom of 2009-14, the nation’s economy and foreign policy would be in a very different place. The Democrats seem intent on undoing any advantage we have gained.

6. My IRA.

I just turned sixty. I have been actively saving for retirement since my first job out of college, because I recognized at the time that the solvency of Social Security was anything but a safe bet. For redistributionists like Liz Warren or Bernie Sanders (and, I fear, a President Hillary Clinton), the $trillions in Americans’ retirement accounts is too juicy a target. He may surprise me, but I don’t think Trump has the same kind of impulse.

As I have said for many years, if there’s one thing that will get me out in the street with a pitchfork, it will be when the politicians come after my IRA.

Bonus Item #7: The Second Amendment

Hillary will pack the court expressly to gut the amendment. I put little faith in Trump’s promises, but I don’t think he’ll do that.


So there you have it. If you’re like most blog readers, you’ll miss this part: None of this is an argument to vote for Trump. Rather, I’m offering an explanation why I would rather gnaw my arm off at the elbow than pull a lever for Hillary.

“But Trump is a closet liberal!” Yeah, well, we lost that battle already. “But Trump is a clown and a buffoon!” Such are our choices.

Alternatives?* Gary Johnson fails to inspire confidence. Evan McMullin is on the ballot here in Louisiana, so his candidacy may deserve some consideration if only to register a protest vote. Trump will solidly carry the state, which affords a conservative voter some flexibility. Chances are, I will make my final decision who to vote for when the curtain closes behind me in the voting booth.

To paraphrase Chris Rock: I’m not saying I’ll vote for Donald Trump… but I understand.

*  Abstention is not an option for me. I voted for the first Gov. Edwards over David Duke in the “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important!” election, and I’ve never regretted it.

Cross-posted at

I see that Dan Spencer and I are in general agreement.

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If you believe #fracking causes Oklahoma earthquakes, then you should also believe that Islam causes terrorism.

Because both beliefs are founded in the same kind of sloppy, simplified guilt-by-association reasoning applied to a complex problem. has a decent, not perfect*, description of Oklahoma’s earthquake dilemma. Now, I’m a thousand miles away and only mildly educated with the particulars, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the problem is centered in the north-central part of the state where companies like SandRidge Energy were chasing the Mississippian Lime. (Note: not the Mississippian Shale.)

What characterizes the Mississippian Lime?

A disappointingly low oil cut, very high decline rates, high well costs in a fairly low-populated area and, perhaps most of all, the issue of saltwater in the geology. In some locations, the ratio of hydrocarbons to saltwater coming out of the well was as high as 1:10. Dealing with all that saltwater can be a huge deterrent, especially when other plays are yielding oilier cuts without the saltwater.

Shales, for the most part, don’t make lots of water. The Mississippian Lime does. The profitability of oil wells revolves around how cheaply you can get rid of all that excess water. (To be clear, the 10:1 ratio means that for every 100 bbls of oil, you have to get rid of 1,000 bbls of salt water.)

When you have a lot of water to put away, you pump it down a salt water disposal (SWD) well. You can put even more if you pump it away with pressure. Presumably, the State of Oklahoma regulates all this, but historically it hasn’t been much of an issue.

It’s an issue now, because the zone they put it away in, the Arbuckle, sits right on top of “basement”, Precambrian granite.  Ancient faults in the granite can become lubricated and slip when pressured water is injected into them. (As I have noted before, they would slip if pressured mother’s milk were injected into them in sufficient volumes.)

Thus the problem. Faults that have probably been asleep for hundreds of millions of years have been awakened. Whether or not the production wells were fracked is really pretty immaterial, and blaming fracking for the earthquake problem blissfully ignores thousands of fracked wells that are nowhere near earthquake zones.

Yes, the volume of water is a real problem. Fracking is only circumstantially involved. Sorry to disappoint.

*  “Not perfect” because the author asserts:

There’s … evidence that older oil and gas wells — like the kind you’d find in a state like Oklahoma, which has a long history of drilling — produce more wastewater than newer wells, such as North Dakota’s.

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“Tropical Storm Fabio” Dumped 7 Cubic Miles of Water on Louisiana

“Tropical Storm Fabio” because the news media pays attention to extreme weather only when it has a sexy name.

H/T for the image below, which depicts the rainfall total from the recent storm, August 8-15, as estimated by NASA.

Using Google Earth, I estimated the area receiving greater than 5″ of rain to be about 28,000 square miles, give or take. By measuring the areas with greater rainfall totals, I estimated that those 28,000 sq mi received an average of 15 inches of rain.

That works out to be about 7 cubic miles of water. 

Lake Pontchartrain is 630 square miles and averages 10 feet of depth, or about 1.2 cubic miles. Six Lake Pontchartrains of water fell on South Louisiana and part of Mississippi during the storm.

8-16-2016 11-43-40 AM

For you Yankees, imagine Manhattan Island (23 sq mi) covered with 1,600 feet of water, enough to cover every structure but the top 150 ft of the spire on the new World Trade Center tower.


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The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [Book Review]

We are hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. Extraction and combustion of coal, natural gas and oil threaten the biosphere. Thanks to mankind’s greed and unwillingness to sacrifice,our Mad Max future promises only Global Warming, rising sea levels and a cataclysm of poverty and resource depletion.

At least that’s the refrain of environmentalists and politicians since the first Earth Day 46 years ago. The drumbeat is so loud and so consistent, even the CEOs and PR flacks of giant energy corporations have become apologetic for the business they’re in.


Like a breath of fresh air, along comes The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2014), by Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. (You can read Chapter 1 free of charge – click here.)

Contrary to expectations, Epstein is not a scientist or engineer. When he testified to Congress in April, Sen. Barbara Boxer told him:

“You’re a philosopher and not a scientist, and I don’t appreciate being lectured by a philosopher and not a scientist.”

As an engineer with a deep appreciation of science, I appreciate being enlightened by a philosopher as opposed to the ideological hacks who usually dominate the discussion.

Epstein writes:

Ultimately, the moral case for fossil fuels is not about fossil fuels; it’s the moral case for using cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to amplify our abilities to make the world a better place — a better place for human beings.

There’s the contrast. For so long, the conversation has been led by environmental activists (Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren and others) for whom environmental impacts trump human concerns. They say that humans can only have a negative impact on nature. Many of them actually argue for depopulating the planet.

Epstein argues that the qualities of fossil fuels — namely energy density and transportability — have enabled industrialized societies to promote the health and prosperity of their citizens, and improve conditions in the developing world, all in a way that has measurably improved the environment relative to earlier in the industrial age. These assertions are supported with an abundance of graphs and figures.

About the time I was reading Epstein’s book, an article appeared in The Atlantic, of all places, that unwittingly illustrated one of his main points:

Why Lightning Disproportionately Kills the Poor
About 24,000 people die each year around the world—the majority of them in developing countries.

In the 1890s, lightning most commonly killed people asleep on their beds inside their homes. That doesn’t happen anymore. By now, if  lightning strikes a home there’s enough wiring and plumbing for the electricity to ground out. In the 1920s, only 1 percent of homes in the U.S. had electricity and plumbing. By the 1930s, the U.S. had developed codes regulating both, and as more buildings followed those regulations they became safer. Since the 1950s, nearly all homes in the U.S. have both electricity and plumbing, and consequently, Ronald Holle, a meteorologist with Vaisala, the world’s largest manufacturer of meteorological equipment, told me lightning deaths inside homes in the U.S. have become nonexistent. In the past 20 years, he said not one person in the U.S. (excluding the elderly or disabled who were caught in fires started by lightning) has died from a lightning bolt that hit a home. But in poor areas of the world, homes may not have all those wires and pipes that help divert electrical shock. Those  homes often have a thin roof made of corrugated metal. And if lightning hits that, the bolt can jump to the nearest person.

Epstein doesn’t put it quite this bluntly, but Mother Nature is a b*tch. Fossil fuels have largely empowered Homo sapiens to mitigate many of the harsher elements of nature. Epstein spends no time denying Global Warming, but thinks that we should acknowledge its benefits (e.g., increased crop yields) while preparing to adapt to the gradual changes in climate he expects.

Epstein has a powerful and controversial message. I am about 95% on board; what I am unsure about is the whiff of Objectivism that comes through (Epstein is a former fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute). My personal philosophy is more rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, with mankind as the preeminent work of the Creator, who has blessed mankind with the bounty of His creation and charged him with stewardship of same.

But I quibble. (!)

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels has enlightened my worldview, and I encourage fellow conservatives and anyone within the energy industry to read it.

Cross-posted at

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