Energy Policy: Big Initiatives Worth the Political Capital?
Energy Policy was a major issue in the 2012 election, with President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney tussling over regulation of carbon emissions, oil and gas development, the stalled Keystone XL pipeline, support for renewable energy and green jobs.
The president's re-election now appears to have provided some needed clarity to questions about the direction national energy policy might take. Both the president and his opponent asserted that the 2012 election presented Americans with the clearest possible choice between two different philosophies of government, and the Democrats emerged the winners. But the election results also raised caution flags.
On one hand, the president's modest three-point margin of victory and his party's incremental gains in both houses of Congress breathed new life into the call for action to counter global climate change and for a future increasingly fueled by renewable energy and low-emission technologies. On the other, the continued Republican control in the House of Representatives signaled a desire for caution in making the changes, while a slight reduction in Tea Party representation expressed a desire for greater flexibility and compromise.
After dealing with the immediate, lowering threat posed by the nation's daunting fiscal crisis, the president and Congress will have to determine the nature and outlines of an energy policy, and that will be no easy task. The United States doesn't have an energy policy, said Robert Rosner, co-director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, only an inconsistent collection of policies, developed in response to the politics of the moment. They promote both renewable energy and fossil fuels, without emphasis on either one or direction for the long term.
That doesn't bother Ken Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The country doesn't need an energy policy, he said; market forces should dictate which energy sources are developed. And as for a carbon-emissions policy, climate change is a real issue, but only a modest threat, he said. He sees no benefit for the United States in adopting a climate-change policy.
But climate change may be the key issue in formulating energy policy. After the warmest 12-month period since measurement began in 1895, which included drought that parched 64 percent of the United States, the costliest wildfire in Colorado history, and the one-two punch by Superstorm Sandy and early winter storm Athena in the Northeast, scientists increasingly are warning that the weather fits the pattern anticipated as the likely result of global climate change.
Almost all climate scientists blame the rising levels of greenhouse gases - primarily carbon dioxide - produced mostly by human activity for the phenomenon. Energy use is the principal source of carbon emissions, and energy policy must be the tool for reducing them, many say. In his victory speech, Obama called for protecting the nation's children from "the destructive power of a warming planet," suggesting that he is ready to re-engage on an issue that stalled in the face of determined Republican opposition in his first term.
Current energy policy is "working to increase energy supply, but also is raising public concerns about what it would mean to increase North American energy production and increasing concern about climate change," said Clark Miller, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability.
Energy and climate rank lower on people's priority lists, but dealing with climate change is the most urgent need in energy policy, said Jack Riggs, senior fellow at the Aspen Institute. In Congress they say, "If a problem seems intractable, put more issues on the table" to create bargaining chips, he said. "If you have enough people who really want something in a legislative package, there can be something for everybody in that." If thinking is done on climate in the next Congress, it might be done in the context of a budget deal, he said.
Few sources thought the president would be able to pass major energy legislation like the energy policy acts of 2005 and 2007. He would have to achieve what he could indirectly, using tax credits and focusing on narrow goals like promoting renewable energy.
"It's really hard to get a big package" because there is too much division in Congress to support grand policy approaches, said Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative representative of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But National Energy Policy Institute President Tony Knowles proposed setting a technology-neutral clean-energy standard to be achieved by a certain date and letting industry find the path to achieve it. As an example, he suggested generating 80 percent of the country's electricity using fuels with zero carbon emissions by 2035. "That's a policy that can work very cost-effectively to reduce CO2 and other pollutants," he said. "The market is actually going in that direction right now."
Published EnergyBiz Magazine in January-February edition