Staging the Energy Debate

Ken Silverstein | Oct 17, 2012


Debate night set the stage once again for what would become the country’s energy policies for the next fours, and beyond. While the candidates tried to appeal to their core supporters, they are nonetheless gravitating toward the center.

President Obama intoned that the nation must look beyond the next decade and to envision a future where sustainable energies have a bigger role. GOP Mitt Romney replied that the current administration is openly hostile to the fossil fuel sector. And while the two men pitched their die-hards, they went on to make conciliatory statements about those fuel sectors that they have been demonizing.

“We’ve opened up public lands,” President Obama said on Tuesday night. “We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration -- and the previous president was an oil man. And natural gas isn’t just appearing magically -- we’re encouraging it and working with the industry.”

The president says that oil production, in fact, is the highest it has been in 16 years while natural gas development is the greatest it has been in decades. At the same time, he said that coal production in certain regions of the country is growing, increasing those overall employment levels. Rising natural gas production, he adds, will remain a priority -- one that he says will lead to potentially 600,000 new jobs.

But he emphasized that an over-reliance on traditional energy is short-sighted, which is why he says that his administration has doubled clean energy production from wind, solar and biofuels. He then said that Governor Romney, who once stood before a coal plant and took great “pride” in proclaiming that it “kills people,” just “doesn’t get the clean energy part.”

To that end, the Obama administration has just finalized a plan to open up 285,000 acres in 17 zones in six Western states for “fast track” utility-scale solar development. More than half of the land slated for those projects is in California, with the rest in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. The administration is giving developers incentives to build in dedicated areas, noting that they will “smart from the start” and they will supply about 24,000 megawatts of power. The nearly 100 solar sites that have been approved or now in the permitting process will not receive those same incentives. 

Pitting Positions

Governor Romney, however, is skeptical of the president’s energy positions, emphasizing that they are favoring unproven technologies and that they are prejudiced against the fossil fuels. He is accusing the president of saying one thing and doing another. Drilling permits, he says, are difficult to get and that the increase in oil and gas production has occurred despite the president’s policies.

Specifically, Romney says that oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land while gas drilling is off by 9 percent. The increase that the president touts, he adds, is because of more development in the Bakken Range in North Dakota -- all against the wishes of the current administration that had used the migratory bird act to prevent further growth there.

“I believe very much in our renewable capabilities -- ethanol, wind, solar -- would be an important part of our energy mix,” Romney said. “But we don’t need to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas.”

He then went on to tell the audience that those living in coal country are pleading with him to stand by coal -- to save their jobs and their communities from the destruction of the current administration’s policies. Romney said that he would utilize those centuries’ worth of coal reserves, pointing out that Obama forewarned four years ago that building coal plants would result in bankruptcy.

An all-important goal, Romney adds, is to produce low-cost energy so that America can be resilient once again. “This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America."

Politically speaking, both candidates are attempting to woo voters in the battleground states who will likely decide the election’s outcome. Colorado and Ohio, for instance, have productive mining sectors and they are concerned about encroaching regulations that could impede their growth. At the same time, wind and solar are important energy sources in those states, along with Iowa and Texas, prompting the candidates to bring those fuels into the debate mix.

With the election right around the corner, the map is drawn. President Obama will win the votes of those attracted to the growth of the greener economy while GOP-Hopeful Romney will get the support of the fossil fuel faithful. In the end, though, both men are correct -- that America will need a truly all-of-the-above energy strategy.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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A Few Questions

The first questions regard federal lands, specifically wilderness regions.  Weren't these lands confiscated from the various states to preserve their pristine environments?  If the feds want to now allow development of solar and/or wind in these areas, should not the areas be returned to the state from which it was taken since the federal government's reason for taking it is no longer valid?

Then there is the question of the "incentives" the feds plan to give the developers using taxpayer money.  What is accomplished if taxpayer money is given to developers of wind without there being energy storage incorporated?  Generally, wind--in particular land based wind--blows at the wrong time to be most useful in decreasing CO2 emissions.  The PTC is just a boondoggle for some major corporations with significant profit margins to avoid paying taxes.  Up in the northwestern states, wind farm developers built wind farms in areas where the power is not necessarily needed in an area served by BPA, which was also a federal program paid for with tax dollars.  Last I heard, the wind developers were fighting to get PTCs paid for curtailed energy because BPA did not need to power.  Seems to me like a pretty stupid business case to build facilities where they aren't needed unless you have an incentive like the PTC.  Peak solar PV output also misses the peak demand time but is at least closer to it than wind and has at least some correlation in that hotter days are generally days of nearly unobstructed sunshine.

It seems a bit hypocritical for those in favor of "green" energy to accuse fossil industries of buying influence to get tax deductions when green energy supporters get the government to take other people's tax money to give directly to them--especially when one looks at the amount of energy delivered per "subsidy" dollar.  So, what one ends up with is campaign donations and lobby money spent to influence lawmakers and getting it back many times over as cash grants and PTCs using other taxpayers as the cash cow.