'All of the Above' Is No Energy Policy

by William S. Becker

Even renewable energy hawks -- most of us anyway -- will concede that the United States cannot go cold turkey from oil tomorrow, or shut down all coal-fired power plants this week, or flip the off-switch tonight on nuclear power.

What we should not concede, however, is the need for the most aggressive possible push to get renewable energy on line. It should be our top national energy priority for many reasons, ranging from environmental protection to national security, and from economic vitality to social equity.

President Obama's recent "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" is as close as he's come so far to issuing a comprehensive national plan for the transition to clean energy. I credit the president for understanding that energy efficiency and renewable energy are a practical, vital and near-term part of our national energy mix.

Not everyone gets that, or admits it. In a recent example of cluelessness, USA Today published a vigorous defense of plastic grocery bags by Jonah Goldberg, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Goldberg panned the president for being "convinced that we can 'win the future' with such boondoggles as high-speed rail and impractical fads such as wind and solar energy (emphasis mine)." USA Today notes that Goldberg is a member of the newspaper's Board of Contributors, as though defending grocery bags and classifying renewable energy as a "fad" qualifies as a contribution to public discourse.

What's really impractical, of course, is the idea that America can compete and thrive in the 21st Century with the same finite dirty fuels that powered us the past 200 years. From childhood asthma to foreign wars, there are myriad reasons fossil energy industries should be, and inevitably will be, dead men walking. There are populist arguments for renewables, too -- a fact our struggling middle-class families should recognize. A staff report for the vice president's Middle Class Task Forcenotes:

Green jobs have the potential to be quality, family-sustaining jobs that also help to improve our environment. They are largely domestic jobs that can't be offshored. They tend to pay more than other jobs, even controlling for worker characteristics...After decades in which the middle class has not gotten its fair share of the rewards from American growth and prosperity, the green sector of the economy represents a source of high- quality, well-paid jobs for the middle class.

Or as Van Jones put it last week during his speech to Power Shift 2011:

The stereotype is that solar power is just hippie power. But it's also cowboy power, farmer power, rancher power and Appalachian mountain power.

Sadly, invoking the real power of renewable resources is where the president's blueprint falls short. As I pointed out in Part 1 of this post, the president has joined the "all of the above" club that argues we need all forms of energy to meet our rising demand. A plan that fails to acknowledge the relative costs and benefits of different energy resources -- and to favor those that give us the most benefit with the least life-cycle costs -- is not a roadmap to the future. It's the path of least political resistance, a reelection strategy rather than a national policy.

The president's blueprint has other shortcomings mixed among its good parts. For example, its definition of "energy security" needs to be broader and cleaner. If we define "energy security" accurately as an economy powered by sustainable resources that increase our financial and military stability, protect the environment throughout their life cycle, conserve critical finite resources such as water, and don't leave future generations with costly and toxic liabilities, then nuclear power and coal simply cannot qualify.

Second, while it acknowledges that America has only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves and that oil prices are determined by a quirky global market, the president's blueprint nevertheless promotes more domestic petroleum production as a path to greater security. However, since the United States does not control the oil market, more domestic production won't protect us from skyrocketing gasoline prices and supply volatility. That point needs to be made to the American people again and again, if only to immunize us against ludicrous Beckisms like that of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) who earned points as a demagogue when he blamed rising gas prices on the Obama Administration's "dubious environmental goals."

If you want to end an addiction to oil, it is not enough to change who supplies the drug. You have to stop using the stuff before it kills you, or permanently damages your life. The Obama Administration has done some historic therapy on America's oil addiction, including new vehicle efficiency standards, but the president's blueprint doesn't lay out the path to full sobriety.

Third, by describing a future in which we burn oil and coal indefinitely, the president calls into question the depth of his concern about climate disruption. Clean coal is a mirage. The president's goal to reduce America's oil imports a third by 2025 is not sufficiently aggressive to address global climate change. Oil is oil. It produces carbon emissions whether it comes from the Persian Gulf, Canada, the Gulf of Mexico or the Interior West.

Nor is the blueprint aggressive in ending our dependence on other finite fuels. On the contrary, it proposes that we produce more natural gas, nuclear energy and coal power in a suite of clean energy technologies that generate 80 percent of America's power by 2035. That brings us back to the definition of "clean".

So long as the coal industry devastates ecosystems during extraction, injects carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or underground, and creates other poisonous pollutants and liabilities such as toxic sludge and ash, coal cannot qualify as clean.

So long as nuclear power produces deadly wastes we aren't willing to manage, terrorist targets we can't fully protect and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in an increasingly unstable world, nuclear power cannot be classified as clean. Neither can natural gas, so long as the industry has not found a way to extract it benignly without methane emissions, saline and radioactive wastewater, or the use of secret fracturing agents.

The idea that energy efficiency and renewable resources can't meet America's energy requirement is a self-fulfilling premise. When conventional wisdom is that renewables will be no more than a marginal contributor to our energy portfolio in the foreseeable future, policy-makers and private investors are less inclined to take the moon shot that would allow sustainable energy to achieve its full potential.

The operative questions in contemporary U.S. energy policy include these: Will the president put his full weight into winning congressional approval of the policies and resources we need to achieve a genuinely clean economy? Will he push Congress aggressively to end taxpayer subsidies of fossil energy? Will Congress recognize that in the 21st century, energy efficiency and renewable energy are the bedrock on which U.S. security and prosperity must be built? Will the American people continue to tolerate a Congress that's behaves like a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil, coal and nuclear energy industries?

We are watching corruption, timidity, money, greed, the insatiable appetite for power, fear of the next election, and garden variety stupidity rule America's energy policy. Sadly, that has been the case for a very long time. It has become a perverse tradition handed down from Congress to Congress and White House to White House, even under presidents who have had the best intentions. It need not be this way. And if we really want to "win the future," it cannot continue.


William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.