The Washington Post

Mitt Romney’s pigeonhearted new energy plan

When Mitt Romney wants to sound very serious, he often talks about energy. So now that the campaign has weaved off into partisan screaming matches on women’s issues and Medicare, Romney is out with a major new energy proposal.

Energy involves serious work, with large drilling rigs, high-pressure pipelines, giant turbines, volatile fuels and deadly mistakes — a complex of big facilities and forces that powers pretty much everything Americans do. Consequently, energy policies can shift serious amounts of money around — including yours, if you pay for your utility bill.

To this .44-caliber issue, though, Romney is bringing a BB gun of a plan and claiming it’s a bazooka.

According to a 21-page proposal his campaign released Thursday, Romney’s vision is to achieve “North American energy independence” by 2020 by opening up America’s Continental Shelf and federal lands for more drilling, and by approving projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, which will move crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

The most obvious problem with Romney’s latest pronouncement on energy is that there is not a single mention of the fact that the Earth is warming and human energy production is at least partially responsible for it. It’s possible to favor expanding access to U.S. energy resources and addressing global warming; Romney just doesn’t try.

But set aside climate change. The other big problem is that promising energy independence is a common political fraud. Among other things, Romney suggests that achieving such independence would “guarantee” “affordable” oil prices and strengthen national security by establishing “freedom from dependence on foreign energy supplies.” That doesn’t make sense.

Romney can’t promise low energy prices, particularly for oil, and even if he could, it wouldn’t be because North America is “independent” of other regions. The market for crude is global; even if America produced all the oil it consumed, riots in Nigeria or pipeline breakdowns in Russia would still affect the price for everyone.

A study cited in Romney’s own energy independence plan makes this point. Harvard Kennedy School research fellow Leonardo Maugeri writes, “The Western Hemisphere could return to a pre-World War II status of theoretical oil self-sufficiency, and the United States could dramatically reduce its oil import needs.” (Note the word “theoretical.”) Romney’s white paper quotes that passage, but leaves out the next, crucial point: “However, quasi oil self-sufficiency will neither insulate the United States from the rest of the global oil market (and world oil prices), nor diminish the critical importance of the Middle East to its foreign policy.”

Participating in the global oil market is a crucial way to keep prices down across the board — market forces determine which fields to tap, how to transport which barrels of crude to which refineries and then on to which markets, meeting the particular requirements of the world’s various economies for the least cost. If America wasn’t hooked into the system, our gas prices would probably jump, since we would be inflexibly dependent on North American supplies that are relatively expensive to develop. But America’s participation in the world market also means the country is permanently exposed to its volatility — as long as we demand lots of crude oil.

More U.S. production has certain benefits, helping job growth and reducing the trade deficit, and the idea of harmonizing our energy plans with those of nearby allies is also a good one. Romney’s, however, is not an energy policy that reflects the big challenges we actually face.

Instead of bragging about how much coal and oil he’s going to pull out of the ground, Romney should be talking about something much harder — how to cut America’s consumption. But that would require political effort and, probably, higher prices. So, instead, the Republican is pigeon-heartedly ceding the critical question of how to cut fossil-fuel dependence to the left.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.


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