Energy politics follows laws like those of physics

Bob Tippee

Politics and physics have disparate meanings for the word "energy" yet adhere in their treatment of the subject to natural laws with interesting similarities.

Defining "energy" with technical precision is difficult, of course. Defining the word politically is impossible.

Technically, energy relates to the ability to perform work and transfer heat. Engineers and physicists discuss it in terms such as ergs, joules, and degrees.

In politics, "energy" means whatever anyone needs it to mean. This flexibility frees political discussion of worry about the physical world's thermodynamic constraints. The basic political terms applicable to energy include dollars, euros, and yuan.

Despite these contrasts, parallel laws do seem to be at work.

The physics of energy, for example, concerns itself with shifts between varying degrees of energy usefulness. It employs tools such as engines, turbines, and batteries.

The politics of energy concentrates on shifts, too: of money. Its tools are taxes, mandates, and subsidies.

Like energy, politics has useful and useless states. Also like energy, politics seems drawn by some natural law in the direction of uselessness.

Observation makes clear that as rhetorical heat rises in a political system addressing energy, disorder overwhelms discussion, degrading the consequent ideas.

Evidence of this political version of entropy abounds. It includes proposals to outlaw "price-gouging," to rein in the supposed excesses of "speculators," and to tax hydrocarbons in order to fund energy of lesser utility.

Energy politics has its peculiarities.

In physics and engineering, attention to energy is constant.

In politics, attention to energy—rhetorical heat—varies as a function of the price of vehicle fuel.

And since the quality of political ideas for energy varies as an inverse function of rhetorical heat, it follows that the risk of policy error rises with prices of gasoline and diesel fuel.

Price levels exist, however, below which political attention and therefore rhetorical heat seem to vanish.

Such a political state, of zero attention to energy, might seem like the good old days.

But political inattention of the past helps explain energy prices of the present, suggesting that politics, like energy, changes only in form, never in quantity.

(Online July 4, 2008; author's e-mail:

Related Articles

Industry group welcomes most UK budget moves

03/21/2014 Oil & Gas UK voiced support for all but one of several measures affecting the offshore producing industry announced in the UK government’s annu...

MARKET WATCH: Crude oil, gas futures prices slide entering spring


The first day of spring in the northern hemisphere was marked by lower crude oil and natural gas futures prices.

API: Petroleum demand dips in February

03/21/2014 Total US petroleum deliveries, a measure of demand, fell 0.6% from February 2013 to average 18.5 million b/d last month, a 16-year low for the mont...

MARKET WATCH: NYMEX crude oil for April tops $100/bbl

03/20/2014 Crude oil futures prices for the April contract climbed above $100/bbl on the New York market on Mar. 19, which analysts attributed to positive ind...

Careers at TOTAL

Careers at TOTAL - Videos

More than 600 job openings are now online, watch videos and learn more!


Click Here to Watch

Other Oil & Gas Industry Jobs

Search More Job Listings >>
Stay Connected