Obama’s disappointing energy plan
Pop quiz: What do turmoil in the Middle East, an earthquake in Japan and the summer all have in common? The answer is they all raise the cost of, and public anxiety about, energy. And so the White House, right on schedule, is offering a new plan to protect “America’s Energy Security.” Unfortunately, it’s not a very good plan, even if it may be very good politics. It says less about how we’ll solve our energy problems than how we’ve resigned ourselves to not solving them.
Energy security is shorthand for “oil we drill here” as opposed to “oil that gets shipped here.” So the first part of the plan is all about expanding domestic production of some of the very fuel we need to be weaning ourselves off of. The truth is that the Obama administration’s energy policy looks more like Sarah Palin’s applause lines than the cap-and-trade program it advocated during the election. That’s not because the White House wouldn’t prefer the plan it pushed in 2008 to the plan it’s pushing in 2011. Congress, not the administration, opposes to cap-and-trade. But we are where we are, and there’s no use dressing it up. You can put lipstick on “drill, baby, drill,” but it’s still “drill, baby, drill.”
The section on renewables is somewhat more encouraging: Fuel standards for commercial trucks. More home weatherization. Doubling funding for innovation through the successful ARPA-E, or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, program. But it’s a much safer bet that Congress will pass legislation authorizing more drilling than doubling ARPA-E’s budget. We might end up with the worst parts of this proposal passed into law and the best parts left on the White House’s Web site.
Perhaps the most striking portion of the plan is “an ambitious but achievable goal of generating 80 percent of the Nation’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.” That target is what’s known in energy circles as a “clean energy standard,” and it doesn’t always command a lot of respect. Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard, has addressed this idea before and said it “would accomplish considerably less and would impose much higher costs per ton of emissions reduction than cap-and-trade would.” He also worries that it might make bolder action less likely in the future: “there is a real danger that enacting these standards will create the illusion that we have done something serious to address climate change [and] create a favored set of businesses that will oppose future adoption of more efficient, serious, broad-based policies.”
But if the policy is depressing, the plan probably gets the politics just right. Cap-and-trade has no chance in Congress. Americans aren’t very worried about global warming. Gas prices are soon to rise. Obama needs to look presidential and solutions-oriented while Congress squabbles over the budget for the rest of 2011. On all those measures, this plan will very likely be successful. It just won’t do much for the planet.