October 13, 2012

Election 2012: Obama's Energy Program

After the American Century

The United States has lacked a coherent energy policy since 1971, when Richard Nixon acknowledged in a special message to Congress that supplies of cheap energy were running out. Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, primarily pursued the supply side, believing that more production was the answer. Carter, who had been trained in engineering as part of his preparation to command a nuclear submarine, knew more about energy than any of those Republicans. He knew that the demand side was just as important, but for the most part failed to convince Americans to become more efficient, or to move the nation toward alternative energies. He put solar panels on the White House, but Reagan took them down.

In 2008, Obama presented himself as an environmentally aware candidate, but energy was a secondary matter in that election. With his focus on health care reform, energy was not the focus of his first two years in office. Nevertheless, in 2009 total US CO2 emissions fell by 7%, and in more recent years the policies of the Obama Administration have sustained this healthy  downward trend. It has subsidized development of solar and wind power, and it has imposed new gas mileage standards, so that by 2016 new American cars should average 35 mpg, or almost 50% more than they averaged in 2008. This change alone will save 2.2 million barrels of oil every day by 2025. This will not mean that US cars are as efficient as those in Europe or Japan in 2025, but at least the nation is moving in the right direction.

President Obama has also invested in energy R & D, particularly in electric cars and new forms of ethanol production that produce fuel from agricultural waste and wood rather than from corn. The Obama Administration has also subsidized energy saving through retrofitting of Federal buildings, training programs for builders, rebates for purchase of more efficient appliances, and subsidies to homeowners to install better insulation. Through such programs the country has toward more efficient energy use and lower carbon intensity. The Obama Administration's goal is “that 80 percent of electricity will come from clean energy sources by 2035.” (Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, 6) 

Yet at the same time, the Democrats are issuing permits that permit more shale natural gas production and open new oil fields. This includes the controversial use of high pressure water and chemicals underground to force more gas and oil to the surface, which may endanger water purity. But that policy has the short run advantage of lowering US oil and natural gas dependence on unstable governments abroad. The policy is somewhat incoherent, but pragmatic, as Obama pursues the “technological fixes” available that can prolong the old energy regime even as they work to create a greener, more sustainable future. 

On the issue of energy, Obama is not my ideal candidate, but he is far better on this issue than that former oilman George W. Bush, and infinitely better than Romney promises to be. Romney would lower CO2 emission standards, scrap support for green energy, abolish the higher MPG standards, and generally try to pretend that energy is not a problem at all, but an opportunity for the free market to make a killing. Romney's plan would not lower the world's oil prices. It would keep the US dependent on oil and gas, letting other nations get further ahead in the development of wind and solar power. Worst of all, Romney would continue the Bush go-it-alone attitude on global warming. On that topic, like so much else, he is vague, with no clear program.