Energy should be one area where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground as every President since Richard Nixon has called for American energy independence. Yet, as President Obama and Governor Romney race for the White House, they have clashed over their energy plans, as the second presidential debate showed. So which candidate’s plan would be better for America? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on how you define “better.”
As a starting point, an effective energy plan would start with the following key components. First, an effective energy plan moves our nation closer to energy independence. Second, an effective plan keeps energy affordable by appropriately balancing the direct costs of energy along with the indirect costs, such as government regulation. Third, an effective plan appropriately balances private investment and public research and development. Finally, a key component to any effective energy plan would create jobs. The plan that has a more realistic chance of accomplishing these goals would be the “better” plan. With that definition in mind, let us compare the two plans.
President Obama offers a plan that he in fact calls an “all of the above” approach. On paper it appears inclusive, but his plan – and most importantly his record of the past four years – focuses more on renewables than any other source. For example, the president has focused most of his efforts on boosting fuel efficiency for cars, building high-speed rail and promoting renewable energy – all well-intentioned goals. A major feature of the president’s strategy is to provide substantial subsidies including direct taxpayer dollars to companies to reach his goals. More on this point in a little bit.
Governor Romney’s plan sounds similar to the president’s plan. For example, both plans, to some extent, embrace shale oil and gas development, which has already helped create 1.8 million U.S. jobs over the past few years. Several recent studies have concluded that this form of energy could be responsible for 3.5 million jobs by 2035. In fact, because natural gas is inexpensive several companies have already announced new manufacturing plants in the rust belt based on the U.S.’s 150-year supply of natural gas.
On the other hand, Governor Romney’s plan unambiguously supports traditional energy for our immediate future while supporting the continued development of renewable energy. Romney makes the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, envisioned to bring more Canadian and U.S. crude to market, a top priority. Romney also emphasizes the need to develop all forms of energy on federal lands that are not specifically designated off-limits and points out that fracking has been successfully accomplished since the early 1940’s. President Obama has approved the Southern portion of Keystone XL, but has put off any decision on the main line until after the election.
Experts differ on what exactly “energy independence means” but at the outset, and energy plan should reduce our reliance on energy sources outside of North America. By focusing on North American energy supplies, the U.S. reduces dependence on overseas sources of energy, many of which come from volatile areas. Reduced dependence therefore directly correlates to increased energy security because the nation can expect less volatility from world events beyond U.S. control.
Just like a toolbox, each energy source is best suited for a particular purpose and sometimes one tool is more effective than another, yet all are needed sooner or later. That means embracing a true ‘all of the above’ approach that embraces the true diversity of energy sources available to the nation including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, biofuels and other synthetics. Such a plan would improve our energy and national security.
Regardless of whether a candidate seeks to continue to develop fossil fuels or encourage renewables, energy sources must be commercially available to consumers in sufficient quantities and at a commercially attractive price in order to be effective. Traditional forms of energy, i.e. fossil fuels have traditionally been cheaper to produce than alternative forms such as solar and wind. President Obama’s plan calls for continued significant federal government investment in alternative energy as the quickest way to reduce cost.
Opponents of the Obama administration are quick to point out that he has already provided $34.7 billion in loan guarantees to renewable power companies like Solyndra who received a $535 million loan, only to file for bankruptcy two years later. Another company with strong ties to the president, Illinois-based Exelon, has received a $200 million stimulus grant and a loan for up to $646 million for its activities.
Despite the unprecedented investment in renewable companies, many aspects of this technology depend on further government investment. Even T. Boone Pickens, once an ardent supporter of wind power, has announced plans to scale back wind investment, primarily because cheap natural gas prices has made wind unattractive to investors. The President has called for an additional $80B in direct subsidies to the wind and solar industries of he is re-elected.
On the other hand, the president has made traditional energy projects a lower priority. He has refused to approve the construction of the privately financed Keystone XL pipeline which would connect Canada’s oil sands to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. Proponents argue the $7.2 billion privately financed pipeline would create thousands of American jobs and add an important energy resource from a top ally to the nation’s portfolio, has opposed efforts to find permanent storage facilities for nuclear waste and has proposed broad new regulations for the natural gas industry.
The President’s approach is not surprising given that in 2008, candidate Obama sought the support of groups hostile to traditional fuels. The president’s original energy plan omitted coal entirely, but was later revised to at least nominally include coal. Romney’s advisors believe the revision to include coal is purely political since coal enjoys substantial support in several battleground states.
The President has responded to criticism of his traditional energy policy by saying that American oil production is at an eight-year high. However, the additional oil production is taking place on state and privately-held lands, not on federal lands under his control. Federal land open for exploration has declined nearly 20 percent and the rate of permitting is down 37 percent on his watch amid significant new regulatory hurdles.
The Romney plan recognizes that the U.S. economy is mostly powered by fossil fuels and will be for the foreseeable future. Its focus on regulatory reform and harnessing federal lands and offshore areas to produce more traditional energy underscore this fact.
Like the president, Romney supports the development of renewable energy and agrees that the federal government has a major role in facilitating innovation. The crucial difference between them is that Romney would let the free market – not Washington D.C. – determine winners and losers. Instead of playing venture capitalist with taxpayer money, Romney would put much of the burden on private investors.
Both plans support research and development but differ on how far funding should go. The president’s record indicates that funding research at the development stage and funding selected for-profit companies is his preferred approach. Romney’s plan would fund research, but not at the stage that would make it available for everyday consumer use. Instead he would let private investors make those funding choices, recognizing that successful companies produce commodities that consumers want to buy at fair market value. This would prevent future Solyndra-like fiascoes.
One criticism of the Romney plan from environmentalists is that it would supposedly gut environmental regulations to accomplish its objectives. But the Romney plan sees regulations as a tool to promote the safe exploration of energy and hold explorers accountable. It promotes efficiency with advanced technology such as horizontal drilling. The prospect of allowing the Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns to build new nuclear plants or allowing oil cowboys to just randomly shoot holes into the ground is non-existent
Finally, the Romney plan seeks to foster a greater North American energy partnership that replaces oil imports from hostile nations. It envisions working with Canada and Mexico to develop their resources and create North American energy independence by 2020. In contrast, the president’s plan does not even mention Canada at all. It does mention “public transit” six times. Opponents point out that unlike areas in other countries, mass transit is only economic viable in areas with sufficient density and that on a large scale, massive public transit programs have no chance of becoming self-sufficient. Opponents often point to Amtrak, which has continued to loose almost $1 billion annually, despite massive subsidies from the federal government.
After reviewing both plans, it is obvious that each reflects its respective candidate’s values. Yet when one considers the need for affordable energy to power our homes and light our factories, only one plan stands a greater chance of success of securing our energy future. As much as we would all like to move the economy toward renewables, the fact remains, our economy is dependent upon the continues availability of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. By fully utilizing all the different resources that America has and allowing the free market to work within the confines of a well-regulated economy, the Romney plan is the only one on the table that can realistically provide the nation with the sufficient amount of energy required to move our economy forward, today and in the future.
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