Searching for the Keys to the Energy Puzzle

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A supply boat, lower left, passes an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico May 26, 2010. Offshore oil production and drilling structures dot the Louisiana coastline.    UPI/A.J. Sisco..
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 15, 2013, 8:40 a.m.

At pan­el dis­cus­sions, key­note ad­dresses, and con­ver­sa­tions across Wash­ing­ton, it’s a ubi­quit­ous idea: We need a na­tion­al en­ergy plan!

I have been asked many times wheth­er I think the coun­try needs such a plan (or strategy or blue­print; choose your fa­vor­ite rel­ev­ant noun). It’s a con­veni­ent, catchall, feel-good phrase that gen­er­ally means: Wash­ing­ton, get your act to­geth­er on en­ergy and cli­mate policy.

With the Sen­ate de­bat­ing its first en­ergy bill in six years, hype around a “na­tion­al en­ergy plan” is run­ning high. It shouldn’t be. This en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill, which has just one — one! — man­dat­ory pro­vi­sion, is a tiny sliv­er of any sort of na­tion­al en­ergy strategy.

“It’s not com­pre­hens­ive en­ergy re­form by any stretch,” said former Sen. Byron Dor­gan, D-N.D., of the ef­fi­ciency bill. “But giv­en the lim­it­a­tions of what might or might not be pos­sible in the Con­gress, it’s worth do­ing.”

The whole concept of a na­tion­al en­ergy plan is a bit mis­placed. And when people ask me wheth­er I think we need a na­tion­al en­ergy plan, I an­swer in two ways.

First, I an­swer with an­oth­er ques­tion: How do you define a na­tion­al en­ergy plan? I can’t an­swer a ques­tion whose premise lacks a defin­i­tion. In this case, the defin­i­tion de­pends on who you ask.

To vir­tu­ally all Re­pub­lic­ans and many Demo­crats rep­res­ent­ing en­ergy-in­tens­ive states and dis­tricts, the crux of a na­tion­al en­ergy plan means ex­pand­ing oil and nat­ur­al-gas drilling off­shore and on pub­lic lands, re­lax­ing reg­u­la­tions, and min­im­iz­ing the fed­er­al role as much as pos­sible.

To many Demo­crats and oth­ers con­cerned about cli­mate change, a na­tion­al en­ergy plan might be bet­ter called a na­tion­al cli­mate and en­ergy plan. That could take the shape of a cap-and-trade sys­tem that caps the amount of green­house-gas emis­sions com­pan­ies can emit. Con­gress tried but failed to pass such a pro­pos­al dur­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s first four years in the White House. Or it could mean a car­bon tax, which has gained trac­tion among think tanks in re­cent months. Or it could mean reg­u­la­tions, which Obama has vowed to use to tackle glob­al warm­ing with Con­gress stalled.

As long as most Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats define a na­tion­al en­ergy plan in these widely dif­fer­ent terms, find­ing agree­ment on just one plan will re­quire sig­ni­fic­ant com­prom­ise on both sides.

The second thing I say in re­sponse to a ques­tion about wheth­er the coun­try needs a na­tion­al en­ergy plan is that we already have one. You just may not like it very much. This plan is made up of a patch­work of policies put in place largely by the pair of en­ergy bills that then-Pres­id­ent Bush signed in­to law in 2005 and 2007 at a time when Wash­ing­ton was try­ing to be­come more en­ergy in­de­pend­ent. These policies in­clude the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard, which has come un­der in­tense bi­par­tis­an scru­tiny in the last year, and stronger fuel-eco­nomy stand­ards, which Obama in turn made even more am­bi­tious. A host of tax in­cent­ives, both tem­por­ary (like the wind pro­duc­tion tax cred­it) and per­man­ent (sev­er­al oil and nat­ur­al gas tax de­duc­tions) also shape our na­tion’s en­ergy plan.

“Any­body who says we don’t have a plan — yes of course we have a plan,” said Chris Miller, who un­til earli­er this year was the top en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment aide to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev. “This is our plan un­til something new passes Con­gress and is signed by the pres­id­ent.”

That’s easi­er said than done, es­pe­cially giv­en how much has changed in the past six years. The gov­ern­ment warned in 2007 that the na­tion was run­ning out of nat­ur­al gas. Today, some people ar­gue we have a sur­feit of it. In 2005, we im­por­ted 60 per­cent of our oil; today, it’s down to 40 per­cent. The term “frack­ing” was as­so­ci­ated with Star Trek, not oil and nat­ur­al gas. Glob­al green­house-gas emis­sions are at a re­cord high, even though U.S. emis­sions are down in the last six years. Layered on top of this sea change in en­ergy are polit­ics much more averse to any­thing that ex­pands gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment or deals with cli­mate change.

The bet­ter ques­tion to ask is wheth­er we need a new na­tion­al en­ergy plan, in light of the new en­ergy — and cli­mate — land­scape. While it may not seem like it, Wash­ing­ton is de­bat­ing all of this a lot: The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee is craft­ing le­gis­la­tion to re­form the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard. The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is craft­ing rules con­trolling car­bon emis­sions from power plants. If or when Wash­ing­ton tackles com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form, the en­ergy in­dustry will have much at stake.

“I think we have vari­ous en­ergy policies, all of which ad­dress a dif­fer­ent part of the puzzle that we’re work­ing through,” said former Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Chair­man Jeff Binga­man, D-N.M. “The idea that we’re go­ing to have a 25-word solu­tion to our en­ergy prob­lem is not real­ist­ic.”

The 30-page en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill the Sen­ate is de­bat­ing — or try­ing to de­bate, if Re­pub­lic­ans al­low it — is a very small piece of this puzzle. But if you can’t (yet) agree on the big pieces, you should start with the small ones.

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