Thrill and Chill of Energy Shortages

Posted March 9, 2009 at 4:44pm

What if the U.S. energy demand surpasses the supply, causing a statewide blackout in California and leaving the state in havoc as Washington officials scramble to find a solution?

That’s the scenario in “Pipeline,— a suspenseful fictional tale by author Peter Schechter. Schechter, author of “Point of Entry,— tackles a number of issues that are closely related to U.S. dependency on foreign energy.

After blackouts leave California in a state of emergency, the United States has a larger dilemma as energy consumption and dependency on foreign oil increases, while environmental and international policies stand in the way of finding either a quick fix or permanent solution. While Schechter’s book is fictional, the setup sounds a lot like the United States’ current struggle for an energy solution.

As Washington, D.C., searches for a solution, the novel specifically looks into one form of alternative energy: natural gas. Russia, the country with the largest natural gas reserves, comes into play here. However, the solution is not so simple. After having its pride hurt during the downfall of the USSR, Russia seeks a different method of international domination — through energy. The U.S., desperate for energy, sends two representatives to Russia to discuss a possible plan to build a gas pipeline across the Bering Strait.

Meanwhile, the wife of an international director of the major Russian gas company and her American environmentalist friend look into her husband’s secret missions. They discover that Russia has implemented a plan that would return the country to its powerful status in the Cold War.

Schechter said he drew on his experiences as a consultant for Peruvian owners of natural gas companies and as a foreign adviser in many Latin American countries and Georgia to write the book. He believes natural gas is the next new energy source, and international relations are an important factor.

In a phone interview, the author pointed out that the U.S. cannot continue the pattern of exchanging money for natural resources with authoritarian regimes. “I’m not talking only about the U.S.,— he said, “but also Europe.— Schechter explained that natural gas is cleaner and has multiple uses, plus it is located in more countries with better relations with the U.S. While electric alternatives are barely mentioned, Schechter explained he was focused on smaller steps: “There will be revolution in renewable energies, but natural gas will be the last stop before that.—

The dilemma in “Pipeline— sounds similar to its real-life scenario, but there are other ironic connections as well. Schechter completed the book last May, but he managed to create some interesting links to current events. For instance, the character Gen. Martha Packard, a strong, female CIA director and Alaskan resident, sets forth to Russia for the Bering Strait deal discussions. She was developed long before the 2008 vice presidential nominations, but sounds a lot like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). Also, in the novel, Russia shuts off its gas supply to Western Europe through the Ukrainian pipeline, an event that occurred late last year.

The similarities, whether ironic or intentional, make the overall theme of natural gas and Russian domination all the more relevant. Would the U.S. be prepared for an energy crisis? The focus on the outcry in Los Angeles is an attention-grabbing start to the novel; the elderly are dying because of the heat, hospitals are running on generators and murderers are breaking out of their jail cells. However, as the story branches out to the characters’ personal stories, the energy theme fades into the background.

Schechter explained that the novel is “deliberate entertainment with education about the issue.— Energy and foreign policy tie the characters’ stories together, but a better focus on the issues could have made the book’s title more true to the story. As a pleasure read, though, the book is suspenseful and dramatic, particularly as the investigation into Russia’s intentions deepens and is leaked to others. However, the book does not offer a clear solution to the dilemma of obtaining natural gas without being indebted to a country.

Despite the characters’ stories being the main content, Pipeline does give insight into the political atmosphere. Schechter’s experience as a foreign adviser lets him be in meetings that influence the nature of the characters in Peru’s Senate, the president’s office in Moscow and even the White House.

Schechter said he learned that “powerful men know which hands to shake and what arms to twist.— This may be what helped Schechter accurately predict future political issues. It at least gives readers a reason for giving the natural gas topic more thought.

As Schechter said, “The book is designed to drive questions that we as citizens need to ask ourselves about. How are we going to create a different relationship with energy so that we can change our foreign policy?—