Energy Efficiency and Conservation

I’m not very hopeful on the energy policy front that President Obama is going to be able to accomplish anything significantly new.  What the country needs is an aggressive “do-it-all” approach to energy.  It would be a policy in which every part of the American energy industry is encouraged to expand and grow with the overlay of needing to move the ball forward, significantly, on mitigating climate change.  But, alas, it doesn’t appear that we’ll be moving into this sphere under President Obama.  I hope I’m wrong, but the early indicators are that we’ll merely emphasize renewables, punish domestic oil and natural gas, and let imports continue to rise (assuming the economy ever rebounds) to fill the gap between what this country can produce and what it needs.

Disappointing but entirely expected from a Democrat Secretary of Interior was the recent voiding of drilling leases on public lands.  The story can be found in the Washington Post and the New York Times.  While this could just be smart politics–cancellation pending review is smart and appeases environmentalist friends–and the end result could be re-leasing much, if not all, of the withdrawn land, don’t count on it.  It would be an unlikely result from a political party so dependent upon its environmentalist constituency.  There is no question that some land needs to be held back from drilling.  We don’t need to drill every square inch of the country, but make no mistake, we need significant domestic drilling to extricate ourselves from our dependence upon foreign oil.  Most environmentalists will only be happy when we halt all domestic oil and gas operations.  It’s unrealistic, but who cares about realism.  This is environmental politics. 

What the country needs to do is encourage domestic drilling in every way it can while at the same time sending a strong signal to the economy, through a gas tax or something similar, that use of oil is very costly.  Senator Richard G. Lugar recently called for imposition of a gas tax in a revenue-neutral way “to treat our oil addiction.”  His Op-ed in the February 1 Washington Post is entitled Raise the Gas Tax.  I’ve advocated for such previously on this weblog (here and here).  It would be sound public policy that in addition to discouraging the use of oil for transportation (our biggest use of oil) would encourage conservation of energy and the growth of renewable and alternative energy.  Win, win, win.  Is it likely to happen?  No.  Politicians are loathe to do unpopular things, even if revenue neutral.

There was also a recent story indicating that green energy has taken a big hit as a result of the declining economy.  This is as tragic as discouraging domestic production of oil and natural gas.  We must do it all.  For the story on how the financial crisis is hurting wind and solar energy, and why the stimulus provisions in this regard will be helpful to the industries, see Dark Days for Green Energy from the February 4 New York Times.

It would not be hard to put together an energy policy that makes everyone happy.  The problem is that such a policy would also make some sad, for the country would have to do some things it wouldn’t do in an ideal world (drill offshore, produce more onshore oil and natural gas, burn more coal, build more nuclear plants, develop wind energy off of Cape Cod).  Doing the right thing is never easy, but it’s the path to progress. 

I was confronted with two stories yesterday, seemingly unrelated.  One was about efforts by natural gas exporting countries to create a formal organization that many fear will morph into a natural gas cartel similar to the OPEC oil cartel.  The other was a story sent to me by a friend about the rescue of a humpback whale off of the California coast where at the conclusion of the rescue the whale went to each rescuer and nudged them as if to say thank you.  It is a moving story that reminds us of our responsibility to preserve other forms of life, some perhaps of very high intelligence.  The latter story was from the San Francisco Chronicle dated December 14, 2005 and entitled Daring rescue of whale off Farallones

Receiving both of these stories comes as I’m finally reading a book that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a year now.  I’d seen it on a list last year at this time of the best books of 2007.  It’s entitled The Unnatural History of the Seaand authored by Callum Roberts.

The book tells the story of man’s centuries old abuse of our oceans and its creatures.  What we’re dealing with today is the result of centuries of overfishing and the complete insensitivity of mankind to the environment.  Reading its chapters on the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac River, was particularly interesting to me as I live but few minutes walk from the Potomac River in Washington, DC.  The book describes the Chesapeake Bay estuary when it was discovered as overflowing with fish and and other wildlife.  Observing it today one would suppose that nothing lives within its waters, though a few fishermen can be found angling along the banks despite the warnings not to eat more than certain quantities of fish due to the presence of heavy metals.  One certainly doesn’t see whales (including Killer Whales) or porpoises or fish so thick you could pluck them from the water.

That we must take better care of our waters seems very clear.  Living along the Chesapeake Bay estuary as I do and crossing it on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge dozens of times per year, I can think of few things that should be of a higher priority that cleaning up the bay and reestablishing a healthy fishery.  Yet, knowing what I know about offshore drilling, it wouldn’t faze me in the least to drill oil or gas wells into the bay.  I see the two things as completely unrelated.  My biggest concern with drilling would be with the visual impact and I would think that states would need to insist upon either directional drilling from shore (which can be done perfectly safely) or gas-only production from the waters themselves (as there would be no visual impact other than during the relatively short drilling phase).  This is what the Province of Ontario does in the Great Lakes.

Yet we in America, while we continue to drive our 4-wheel drive Suburbans to and from our homes built in suburbia in a manner that completely ignores the impact of runoff from our fertilized lawns on inland and coastal waters, refuse to consider drilling offshore.  It is completely illogical.  It is the kind of disconnect that we expect in an America that gets its information from soundbites rather than from serious inquiry.

This brings me back to the story that a number of countries that produce and export natural gas have created a formal organization that appears to be aimed at created an OPEC-like cartel for natural gas.  With the increase in the transport of liquified natural gas it is becoming more and more a world commodity.  As we in the United States build more import terminals we are at risk of becoming as economically dependent upon natural gas from abroad as we are on oil.

My very strongly held view is that we must first conserve, and secondly produce as much oil and natural gas at home before we import by sea any more oil or natural gas.  That we may soon have another cartel on our hands that aims to manipulate the supply and therefore the price of natural gas should be highly concerning.  It also means more petroleum products on more boats travelling into a ports, not an unrisky thing itself.

My conclusion in all of this is that President Obama has a unique opportunity to create a new energy policy in this country that is for the first time both rational and balanced.  Certainly a Democrat advocating offshore development will have far more credibility with the public than would any Republican becuase of the Democratic Party’s longstanding advocacy for the environment.  There doesn’t exist the suspicion that would exist with Republican leadership, however unjustified, that the decision is just about paying off campaign contributors.  For reasons including national security, the environment, and the economy, the country needs to expand its production of oil and natural gas at one and the same time that it expands development of alternative fuels and reduces the overall use of fossil-based fuels.  The only energy path forward is one that uses all of our energy resources as we transition to a completely new energy future.  For President Obama and the Democrats to squander this opportunity to at last put the country on the road to that rational energy future would be tragic.  There will never be a better time to get it right and it will not mean forsaking the environment.  It will, however, require saying no to irrationality and yes to progress.

When it comes to our environment, and especially our marine environment, we need to pay attention to the real causes of harm to that environment and the real risks of future harm.  Prudent oil and natural gas production incorporating the lasted technology has shown to be extremely safe and non-damaging to the marine environment.  I have toured production platforms in the North Sea and the California coast and know them to have, if anything, a positive impact on their immediate environment.  There will never be a better time than the present to get straight our goals, a clean environment and a sound energy future, and dispense with myths and untruths that muddy the waters of sound policy making. 

The more I learn of President-elect Obama’s cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees, the more I gain confidence that Obama could be a great president.  The centrist approach he appears to be taking is a winning approach, both for the country and electorally.  The team being assembled, with few exceptions, seems to be extremely capable and ideologically moderate.  The foreign policy team in particular is looking extremely good.  While I might question whether Hillary Clinton is the best choice to be Secretary of State, her apparent selection is a mainstream appointment, as would General Jones be as National Security Advisor.  The apparent decision to keep Defense Secretary Gates in his position for at least a year is also most welcome news.

These appointments are welcome because they represent an Obama that wasn’t evident during the primary, when to a large extent he campaigned for and ultimately won the pacifist vote, for lack of a better term.  He went for and won the voters who were opposed to the Iraq war and wanted out, full stop.  By contrast Hillary became the “war” candidate, taking a less strident position on the withdrawal of troops.  That Obama is appointing a team more in line with her campaign than his is comforting to me as it is, in my opinion, the more responsible approach.  My biggest concern during the campaign was what I considered to be Obama’s completely irresponsible position on withdrawal from Iraq.  

I remain disappointed in candidates that cannot run more transparent campaigns–running on who you really are and what you really believe in rather than on what you think voters are looking for or what it takes to win.  Obama clearly ran such a campaign–dishonest might not be too strong term.  So-called “progressives” or the “pacifist” wing might have a justifiable gripe with the man.  From my perspective, at least on this issue, I am gratified that he’s apparently about to do the right thing now that the campaign is over.  It is indeed good for the country.

In this vein, E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post yesterday makes an argument that President-elect Obama is beginning to look very similar to President Bush.  Not President George W. Bush but his father, President George H.W. Bush.  Here’s an excerpt from the column entitled Obama’s Bush Doctrine:    

What’s most striking about Obama’s approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist who would advance American interests by diplomacy, by working to improve the country’s image abroad, and by using military force prudently and cautiously.

This sounds a lot like the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, and it makes perfect sense that Obama has had conversations with the senior Bush’s closest foreign policy adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Obama has drawn counsel from many in Scowcroft’s circle, and Gates himself was deputy national security adviser under Scowcroft.

Dionne also observes that Obama’s worldview was largely “hidden in plain sight” during the campaign.  While Dionne notes that Obama did indeed severely criticize the Iraq War, Obama also made the case during the campaign for “justified” war.  Perhaps Obama was more transparent than I just accused him of being after all.

There are a number of additional appointments to be made to the administration about which I remain very concerned.  They are the appointments of the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA).  All three will have an enormous impact on our country’s energy policy and its ability to create a policy that rationally addresses the energy and environmental challenges faced by the country.  In my view, the Secretary of Energy’s first duty should be as the country’s spokesman-in-chief on the country’s energy policy, selling hard policy decisions and educating as much as anything else.  The implementers of that policy, however, will be as they always have been the Interior Secretary and EPA chief.  A rogue appointment in any or all of these positions could wreak havoc on the ability of the country to achieve a rational and viable energy policy.

In terms of the speculation about these positions I reference an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled EPA, Interior Dept. Chiefs Will Be Busy Erasing Bush’s Mark.  That headline isn’t a good sign about what’s to come.  I know that rap is that Bush has allowed rape of the nation’s public land and allowed polluters free reign.  The truth is considerably different.  Sure, environmental groups are angry, but a rational energy policy will require that every interest group be a little bit angry.  The speculation seems to be that the Obama appointments will leave environmentalists dancing in the streets.  If that indeed happens, woe to the country and it’s energy future.  It will have meant that we aren’t making rational decisions but environmentally popular ones. 

What people fail to realize is that national security needs to be part of every public lands decision.  While it’s easy to suspect that the opening of public lands to oil and natural gas development in the west is simply about Republicans doing favors for their friends in the energy industry, it is much more about reducing the country’s dependence upon imported oil.  This country pays a very dear price for that foreign dependence, including, I would argue, every death that has resulted from the war in Iraq.  There is no justification for a single death that is consequence of our thirst for oil.  Beyond conservation and an all-out effort to develop substitute fuels, the country MUST develop in a much more robust way than it has done in the past (yes, even under Bush) to develop its own domestic oil and natural gas resources.  There is no other rational choice.  Yes, we wouldn’t do it in an ideal world, but we aren’t living in an ideal world.  We have to make tough choices and developing America’s domestic oil and natural gas resources is one of those tough but necessary choices until the day comes that our country’s economy is no longer as reliant as it is on carbon based fuels.  It is fantasy to think that by reducing domestic production we can bring the “renewable future” into existence sooner.  We can’t.  We will only bring about more imports and all of their adverse consequences (economic, environmental, national security).

So, bringing me back to the point of all of this, the appointments at Interior, Energy and EPA are indeed important ones.  The appointees need to be able to see the entire picture, not just the narrow picture that the traditional environmental groups would have us see.  Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that any of the names being publicly mentioned for these positions are leaders if this kind.  Here’s an excerpt from the above-referenced Washington Post story of those being talked about for Interior Secretary:   

The list for Interior is almost as long. Two House Democrats, Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.) are contenders, but Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, as well as three former Interior officials — David Hayes, John Leshy and Clark at Defenders of Wildlife — have all been mentioned.

I’d argue that each of those individuals mentioned above would likely have a focus that is entirely too much Sierra Club Newsletter and not enough Foreign Policy Magazine.  Let’s hope that Obama surprises here, too, and brings us people with new and different perspectives and who are capable of making the tough decisions and listening to all sides of an issue before deciding.  A first step is realizing that while Bush Administration policies in these areas were far from perfect all of the time (deeply flawed is perhaps a better way of putting it) they were often right as well and a complete reversal of course would not be good for the country.  

For now, we must wait and see. 

Robert J. Samuelson in his column this morning entitled Stimulus For the Long Haul suggests a new multi-billion dollar stimulus bill is all but assured.  “It’s extra insurance against an economic free fall”.  Yet he contends the case for the stimulus isn’t airtight as the year’s earlier stimulus bill had only “modest effect.”  His concern is that a new bill, especially if not well crafted, could have a similarly unimpressive economic stimulus effect.  He suggests that if we do nonetheless proceed with a new stimulus package that it also include a few other elements, elements that begin to tackle some tough political issues that that need, for the sake of our country’s long-term economic health, to be addressed.  I’ll let you read the details of his three proposals, only summarizing them here, but all three are worthy of serious contemplation.  I might tinker with details but in general they are excellent suggestions.  The three:  1) Raise gasoline taxes and not let today’s lower oil prices filter through to consumers again and wash away the conservation gains of the past few months; 2) increase the earliest retirement age from 62 to 64, signalling, if nothing else, Congress’s willingness to tackle the Social Security/Medicare problem; and, 3) Authorize offshore drilling for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico.  Yes, to all three.  I will add only that, as to 3), it is important that what Congress does this time is real, not just optical (as the House bill passed a few ago was).  There are important economic reasons to bring American jobs and dollars home.