Energy Policy and the 2012 Presidential Campaign

Joseph Tomain

Aug. 21, 2012

Earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee reported out a bill that would extend production tax credits for the wind industry, in addition to providing other tax benefits for the construction of new energy-efficient homes, energy efficient appliances, and biofuels.  These are all positive efforts that serve as investments in the necessary transition to a clean energy future.  Yet meanwhile, the Presidential campaign rhetoric on this issue, and on energy policy more broadly,  is as predictable as it is disappointing.

Governor Romney came out in “firm opposition” to extending production tax credits to the wind industry even though Republican Senators, such as Chuck Grassley, co-sponsored the tax legislation that passed the Senate committee with a 19-5 bipartisan vote.  It is equally unsurprising that conservative groups such as the Club for Growth applaud Romney for his "courage" to oppose tax credits and to stand up to claims about green job creation.

On the Obama side of the aisle, not only does the White House support the extension of tax credits, it has announced plans to fast track solar and wind projects on public lands.  It is estimated that renewable electricity form these projects will serve roughly 1.5 million homes as well as create jobs.  These efforts receive the applause from the usual suspects in the environmental and clean energy communities.  Thus, on the campaign trail, clean energy is promoted by the Democratic candidate and opposed by the Republican.

There is a dual disappointment in such predictability.  First, by focusing on wind, the candidates are addressing just over 2% of U.S. electricity production (though wind installations are now outpacing new coal plants).  Coal-fired electricity is now also competing with cheap natural gas.  Second, and more disappointing still, is that despite heated rhetoric typical of sound bite politics, the two parties differ only marginally about energy policy.  Obama’s opponents are certainly delighted to rage on about Solyndra, but they stay silent on other DOE R&D efforts in natural gas vehicle technologies, smart grid investments, advanced batteries, energy storage and the like.

Similarly, Obama’s supporters, while they trumpet his clean energy initiatives, are less than enthusiastic about opening the Outer Continental Shelf to further exploration, funding new nuclear plants, and a willingness to advance natural gas shale deposits.

Indeed, the Obama and Romney camps are closer to each other on energy policy than they are apart.

Romney’s energy policy can be found in his campaign document Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth.  His energy plan tells readers about Obama’s failures for over four pages, then outlines his plan in the remainder of the ten pages.  His plan starts off with promise.  Energy is necessary for a healthy economy and the energy sector is a job creator; therefore, domestically produced energy is good economic policy, Romney says.  His plan then goes on to reveal the “green myth” about energy jobs while touting the job potential of a clean coal industry.  Forget, for a moment, that opposing green jobs but extolling the virtues of clean coal is a contradiction; the message is clear.  Fossil fuels are good for the economy but renewable resources are not. 

Romney then goes on to recommend streamlining regulatory processes for “rapid progress in the development of our domestic reserves of oil and natural gas;” “overhaul” those pesky clean air, clean water and other environmental laws; reform nuclear power regulation; develop oil reserves; promote shale gas; and invest in basic research and advanced technologies.  Please note that every one of these energy resource initiatives is subsidized in some form or another by the federal government.  They are subsidized in myriad ways, but most notably by not accounting for the social costs of carbon pollution.

The Obama campaign’s materials, like Romney’s, also pay lip service to environmental protection, and with the exception of Obama’s stronger clean energy agenda, the two energy policies are remarkably similar.  Obama does have more faith than Romney about jobs in a green economy, a faith that bears some relation to reality.  Jobs are being created in the wind, solar, retrofit, and other industries.  Federal R&D programs also create jobs.  The estimated numbers are likely too blue sky.  Nevertheless, these sectors are growing as the costs of clean energy decline.

The Obama administration has also promoted the clean energy transition by supporting the development of offshore wind, commercial-scale solar, increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards, increased clean energy R&D, improved clean air standards, and smart grid investment among other initiatives. The stimulus gave billions of dollars toward clean energy and the smart grid. At the same time, the United States is increasing domestic oil production, increasing natural gas production noticeably, setting clean coal goals including 22 capture-and-storage projects, investing in two nuclear power plants, and opening up more public lands for energy exploration and energy projects.

In short, the traditional fossil-fuel paradigm is supported by the presidential candidates from both parties with a marginal, albeit important, emphasis on clean energy by the Obama administration. 

What is missing, and at this time appears unlikely to occur in the short and mid-terms, is full throated federal leadership on a clean energy transition with a complementary climate change policy.  Energy advocates have been developing a clean energy policy since the mid-1970s, predominantly in response to the Oil Embargo of 1973 and our growing dependence on Mideast oil.  Since the turn of the millennium, and partially in response to 9/11, an energy policy consensus has been developing among bipartisan energy policy groups and NGOs on the need for a transition away from fossil fuels to alternative resources and energy efficiency.  Clean energy efforts are visible at the state and local levels and in the private sector as investments in clean energy outpace investments in virtually any other sector.  REN21, an international NGO concerned with renewable energy resources, reports that in 2011 global new investments grew to $257 billion, doubling the amount invested in 2007 just prior to the current recession.

Clean energy offers not only a transition to a better, more environmentally sensitive energy future, but  will increase domestic energy production and with it jobs, will contribute to economic recovery, will enhance our national security, and will result in greater investment in new technologies and new markets.  Historically, we asked only one thing from our energy policy:  Produce energy and grow the economy.  Today, we expect our energy policy to supply reliable and affordable energy, contribute to economic growth, protect the environment, and provide national security.  Clean energy is more likely to attain those several goals than an outdated fossil-fuel energy policy.  This is well known and is being acted upon by several public and private actors.  Our presidential candidates should know this too and should be willing to act on it as a presidential priority.

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