Friday, October 29, 2004

Energy Policies - George W. Bush
Some time ago, I promised another look at the candidates' energy policies, and time is running short to do this before next Tuesday. I reviewed Senator Kerry's and Senator Edwards' energy planks during the primaries (see my posting of February 27), and I'll take another run through the Kerry proposals on Monday. Meanwhile, here's a quick look at what George W. Bush's campaign website suggests would happen in a second Bush Administration.

The Bush energy agenda really boils down to three basic initiatives: removing obstacles to increasing domestic energy production, especially oil and gas; investing in infrastructure and technology; and fostering conservation and renewables. The first aspect is the most controversial, by far.

The basic premise of Bush's supply-side proposals is that there is still untapped oil and gas in hard to reach or environmentally sensitive areas, that the nation needs these resources, and that the energy industry can extract them with less environmental impact than previously possible. All three statements are true, though it's important to understand the distinction between what is possible for oil and for gas.

Without rehashing all of the facts I've covered in previous blogs, the US is far down the depletion curve in terms of its original oil endowment. We've produced something like 80 or 90% of what was there to start with (in terms of recoverable oil), and the goal of further development should be seen in terms of managing the rate of overall decline, rather than any possibility of becoming self-sufficient again. Having said that, I think it makes a big difference strategically if we are able to continue producing 5-6 million barrels a day for the next 20 years, or will instead see this fall to 3-4 million without the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other currently off-limits resources.

Gas is another story. The big drive for LNG imports, which the President supports, is necessitated by the stagnation of domestic gas supplies, due at least in part to access restrictions in sensitive areas. Promoting more use of gas is good for the environment and for US jobs, but the gas has to come from somewhere. Unless we want to see the steady advance of gas--with all its environmental benefits--stall and give way to dirtier fuels, we will need all of what Bush suggests: more domestic gas, a gas pipeline from Alaska, and LNG imports (which means finding a better way to balance local concerns with national and regional energy needs in deciding where to site LNG terminals.)

In terms of infrastructure, the national power grid, which is really a collection of regional grids, needs new both infrastructure and new ideas. A new electricity policy is overdue, though the specifics matter, and I haven't examined the details of what the Administration is proposing.

Environmental groups roundly criticized George W. Bush for inadequate measures on conservation and alternative energy, but his support for continued tax benefits for buying hybrid cars, plus the proposed extension of the wind power tax credit, would put real dollars in places where they will have a direct impact on advancing alternatives. My biggest quibble concerns his support for ethanol and biodiesel, most of which has neutral or negative consequences for energy security and provides little more than farm supports in a different guise. This money could be much more effective supporting other forms of renewable energy.

Finally, though Bush's hydrogen proposals have been seen as a distraction from saving more energy in the near term, it is vitally important to fund basic research and development on this now, if we expect to see any kind of progress towards a hydrogen economy within the next generation. Hydrogen is something that is most certainly not just "off the shelf". Still, there's little discussion--at least on the campaign website--of where all this "pollution-free" hydrogen will come from. As you all know by now, hydrogen is an energy carrier, like electricity, and not an energy source, like oil.

All in all, this list is sort of a "status quo on steroids". I'd like to see more emphasis on demand-management, particularly on closing the SUV loophole and broadening incentives not just for hybrid cars, but for efficient vehicles of any technology. On the supply side, I wish I saw an alternative to what Bush is proposing that wouldn't result in the US being even more reliant on foreign oil suppliers and on high-carbon fuels like coal in the future. I don't. The reality is we'll need more domestic energy and more imported energy, even as we become more efficient.

What disappoints me most is that an administration with such a solid energy background and access to the best talent in the energy industry couldn't have come up with a really A+ energy program, rather than a laundry list. We need a balance of vision, in the form of a grand strategy for reducing the country's reliance on unstable suppliers, and practicality in laying out attainable short-, medium-, and long-term steps to get us there. And the most potentially serious shortcoming is the administration's failure to connect energy to climate change, which could prove to be as large a global challenge as the War on Terror.

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