None of the Above

Does either candidate really believe in an "all of the above" energy policy?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by James Yang for TIME

The Obama and Romney campaigns agree that energy policy is one of the clearest contrasts between the candidates. Which is odd, because the two campaigns also agree that the U.S. needs an “all of the above” energy policy.

There is an explanation for this paradox that won’t shock anyone: both campaigns are being disingenuous. Romney, whose 21-page energy white paper reads like a love letter to fossil fuels, had the gall to blame Obama for recent wind-industry layoffs, which were caused by uncertainty over tax credits that Romney wants to kill. Obama, whose Administration has poured money into clean energy while cracking down on dirty coal plants, has shown similar chutzpah, airing an ad in coal-rich Ohio depicting Romney as a Massachusetts coal basher.

Romney doesn’t bash coal anymore. And his plan for North American energy independence isn’t really all of the above; it’s drill, baby, drill. It doesn’t even mention reducing demand — the cheapest, cleanest and fastest way to reduce dependence. He opposes Obama’s strict fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which could save billions of barrels of oil. Romney wants more drilling, less regulation and immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The idea is that exploiting technological advances in fracking and drilling could unleash an oil and gas boom, keeping energy prices low and creating millions of jobs.

(MORE: Why the Falling U.S. Birth Rates Are So Troubling)

But U.S. oil and gas production is already booming. Despite the 2010 BP oil-spill disaster, the oil-rig count is the highest it’s been since the 1980s. And petroleum companies are still sitting on 26 million acres in idle offshore leases, plus 7,000 unused permits for drilling on federal land. The shale-gas revolution is already under way, despite the Obama Administration’s alleged hostility.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels are broiling the planet, and Romney’s plans would accelerate that. He has become an outspoken critic of federal incentives for renewables, deriding them as “picking winners and losers.” Romney says he merely wants to restore a level playing field for all energy resources, but he opposes efforts to level the playing field by making coal and petroleum — “real energy,” he once called them — pay for their pollution through carbon pricing or even clean-air enforcement. And while he’s fine with cradle-to-grave support for nuclear plants, he opposes Obama’s call to eliminate tax breaks for spectacularly profitable oil companies. Romney’s plan does promise to slash red tape around renewables, but Obama has already done that; his Administration approved the first 17 solar projects on federal land.

In fact, while every President since Nixon has talked about reducing energy dependence, Obama is the first to oversee a real reduction, back to 1995 levels. His stimulus poured $90 billion into clean energy, launching a quiet green revolution. Wind generation doubled in his first term, and solar-power installations have increased sixfold. Over Republican opposition, Obama helped finance a new battery industry for electric vehicles and a smarter electric grid. And he has tackled demand, not only with efficiency upgrades for vehicles and appliances but also with aggressive retrofits of government buildings, low-income homes and factories. Romney has dismissed Obama’s green push as crony capitalism, but nobody has produced evidence of any shenanigans.

(MORE: Coal, Hard Truths)

Obama isn’t running as a green President, though. Instead he brags about record production of fossil fuels — a rooster taking credit for the sunrise. And he no longer talks much about global warming, even though that’s the best reason to invest in clean energy. If the goal is merely reducing dependence on imports, we can just use more coal and gas. They’re abundant. And right now they’re cheap.

The unpalatable truth is that “all of the above” is a silly energy policy. Corn ethanol is worse for the planet than gasoline. Nuclear energy costs too much. Natural gas is eco-friendlier than coal but not as clean as wind or sunshine. And it won’t need presidential assistance to keep expanding.

The larger point is that energy, like elections, is about more than slogans. It’s about choices — and some choices are better than others.

7 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

If we're going to have a clear energy policy, I propose the following:

1. Commercialize the promising molten-salt fuel nuclear reactor fueled by thorium-232 so we could build hundreds of them based on a standardized design not only to increase power generating capacity, but replace older coal-fired power plants.

2. Aggressively fund electric battery research based on dry-electrode lithium-ion and carbon-nanotube ultracapacitor designs to tremendous extend the range of electric cars per charge--possibly as high as 800 km (497 miles) per charge.

3. Seriously fund research into "hot" fusion to make it commercially viable within 15-20 years.

4. Have DARPA do scientific studies to once and for all prove or disprove claims of "cold" fusion and zero-point energy devices. If some of the claims are valid it could open the door for a revolution in power generation, going from centralized power generation to distributed power generation with every private home being a power generator.

Now THAT is a serious, forward-thinking energy policy. 

Talendria
Talendria

I think we need to focus more on microgeneration.  If every home in America had solar panels, it seems like we'd generate a whole lot of electricity.  I understand the panels are inefficient and expensive to produce right now, but lots of people are working to change that.

We've already changed the most important thing, which was Americans' perception of energy usage as a birthright.  We've become much more aware of how much energy we use, and most homes have been upgraded with energy-efficient appliances.I'm also optimistic about the new Tesla, although I have some concerns about the battery's environmental impact.  If they can recycle the battery, I'd probably buy one.  A country full of electric cars would lower our carbon output considerably.

J Eric Marchant
J Eric Marchant

I noticed that there are several sweeping statements in this article that don't bother to understand the root cause or effect of what is being said.

"while every President since Nixon has talked about reducing energy dependence, Obama is the first to oversee a real reduction, back to 1995 levels."Obama did not create this reduction. Lower income levels matched with close to  $4/gallon gas has driven consumers to demand higher efficiency and lowering demand for oil. 

"Wind generation doubled in his first term, and solar-power installations have increased sixfold."

Both wind and solar energy in their current uses are incredible inefficient and a net loss in energy.

Wind

A few of the main issues with using wind energy as a useful large scale energy source are: 

1. Inconsistent wind while, electricity demand is fairly steady. 

This mismatch of supply and demand mean that in order to keep up with demand even in areas with wind turbines, another consistent form of power generation is also required (usually coal fired plant) this is inefficient because of doubling up on infrastructure.

2.High wind areas (locations where wind generation is optimal) are not generally close to large enough populations to reap benefits (eg Wyoming). 

There  are high costs in building infrastructure to transmit the energy from these places especially when taking into account the relativity low amounts of energy that is produced from these wind farms.

If we can develop better ways of storing or transporting wind energy, then it can become a more viable macro energy option.

Solar

It takes more energy to produce a solar panel than that panel will ever recoup during its operation. 

This does not mean that solar is not a useful in "off the grid" applications solar is a fantastic option. It is however a terrible option in large scale power generation. 

I do hope that we can discover ways to more efficiently capture energy from the sun like plants already have. The sun is by far the most important energy source we have current technologies are just not the answer to our growing energy demands.

I do think that we should be working on developing these technologies, but we need to come up with more cost effective options before they are implemented on a large scale. The government  is the best agent for getting it done, especially how "green energy" is currently being addressed.

FergusonValues
FergusonValues

It's frustrating to see how slow the federal government - both democrats and republicans - have moved on opening the door for energy solutions. 

T. Boone Pickens is the first to lay out a clear plan for reducing dependance on foreign oil, and initiate significant change in the "energy system" that will benefit every American. 

Start with the transport trucks (who use 18% of the oil) by switching them to natural gas, available in massive abundance right her under American oil.  Once we have a system of natural gas distribution established, it'll make sense to convert other vehicles. It's cleaner and cheaper than oil. And it'll provide a huge boost to the American economy vs. the middle east. (duh!)

Why is it so hard for all elected officials to understand this basic plan? (hint: politics)

Muir Woods
Muir Woods

Just follow the money and all will be made clear.

Romney panders to his base, and Obama does the same with his, but they're just the marks in the crowd.  Camera fodder and cheap votes.  Both candidates bow down to the energy incumbents behind closed doors, and that's coal, oil and gas.

In this respect, Romney is the more honest of the two, because he hides his true allegiance less, but that's damning with very faint praise indeed.

TxCharlie
TxCharlie

I could write a book on all the issues brought up here, but the statement about wind energy layoffs due to tax credits drying up are telling...

It exposed the artificial nature of government investment in virtually anything - that is, the government typically pours money into endeavors which the market is not prepared to support. That means that as soon as Federal money dries up, the endeavor instantly collapses.

I think wind and solar have a lot of promise, but more research and development are needed before the technologies are ready for prime time.

The market has dictated that green energy time has not come yet, so instead of pouring money into mass production of products with severe payback deficiencies, the government needs to support Manhattan - style research programs, but until those technologies can compete in the market without tax support and without destroying our Fossil Fuel infrastructure, we should rely on proven technologies to bridge the gap.

True, coal was dirty in past, but we now have scrubber technology which clearly makes coal and diesel clean enough to bridge the gap, without bankrupting the country on a whole new infrastructure which is clearly not feasible until major problems can be resolved, one of the most important being a cheap and robust battery technology to supply power during weeks or months of cloudy weather and enimic winds, which is guaranteed to cause a major economic collapse if we become dependant on wind and solar, while scrapping our fossil fuel infrastructure.

Bill Vosti
Bill Vosti

There's a problem with claiming solar and wind can't compete in the marketplace. Much of the externalities of the fossil fuel sources are not accounted for in their price (the commons pays for some of the pollution and the climate change effects). Thus, those sources are much cheaper than they should be.

If the externalities were accounted for, solar and wind would be much more cost competitive with fossil fuel sources. But they are not, and we do not have a true market system in place right now for energy -- so the argument that the market has not selected green energy yet is false.