Cutting carbon: A better approach to energy policy

April 1, 2011

IN A SPEECH at Georgetown University this week, President Obama promised to slash America’s dependence on foreign oil. Mr. Obama wants to produce more crude oil domestically, invest in biofuels, encourage the use of natural gas in vehicle fleets, and require cars and trucks to be more efficient.

This sort of talk is politically appealing, especially when gasoline prices are up. But it’s not the principle on which America’s energy policy should turn.

Oil prices reflect a world market, and, as the president explained Wednesday, their long-term trajectory is up, regardless of American action. The country, though, doesn’t have sufficient domestic oil supplies to displace the volumes it imports, and it will probably take decades to wean the economy off crude, no matter what policies prevail. A 2009 Harvard study calculated that, even with gas prices above $8 a gallon, imports would drop only about 20 percent by 2030. The president’s goal is more ambitious: To reduce oil imports by a third in a decade. Even if he succeeds, America will still import 7.4 million barrels of oil a day in 2025.

Less dependence is certainly better. But reducing carbon emissions is far more important.

There is often overlap between these two goals, and Mr. Obama’s proposals that address both deserve consideration — auto efficiency standards, for example. Cellulosic ethanol and certain advanced biofuels also have some potential to reduce greenhouse emissions and should be explored. Corn ethanol, on the other hand, isn’t a big carbon dioxide saver. Even Tom Vilsack, the president’s agriculture secretary and a staunch ethanol supporter, told us that he favors gradually shifting subsidies away from corn. Burning more natural gas, meanwhile, could slash emissions, but the big carbon savings come from fuel switching at coal-fired power plants, which doesn’t comport with a focus on the transportation sector.

Some of Mr. Obama’s most appealing proposals were the afterthoughts in his speech. A clean electricity standard would require utilities to derive a certain amount of their electricity from greener sources, without politicians choosing exactly who wins and who loses. And more funding for energy technology research and development could produce the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck of any of these ideas, even though House Republicans may kill it in their budget-cutting efforts.

These measures, rather than a fantasy of energy independence, should headline America’s energy initiatives.

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