A year from today Americans will know who will serve as President from 2013 to 2017. Even though $4 gasoline was still fresh in the minds of voters, energy played only a minor role in the outcome of the 2008 election, overshadowed by two wars and a crippling financial crisis. Will that be the case again in 2012, or will energy loom larger, propelled by its close connection with the economy? Several Republican candidates have already raised energy as a campaign issue, and the administration has repeatedly emphasized the linkages between energy, jobs and taxes. Whether any of those arguments gains traction in a race that at this point seems likely to be dominated by unemployment and deficits could depend on how deftly the administration handles decisions such as the Keystone XL Pipeline permit, as well as the degree to which voters become interested in the details of the country's shifting energy balances.
From day one, the Obama administration has taken a calculated risk on energy by focusing most of its non-crisis-response attention on promoting renewables such as biofuels and wind, solar and geothermal power. According to the latest figures from the Energy Information Agency the combined contribution to our total energy diet from these sources increased from 2.2% in 2008 to 3.2% in 2010. Rightly or wrongly, the Solyndra fiasco could leave voters questioning the wisdom of the whole suite of renewables policies that promise large future benefits but have had little tangible impact so far. Nor do the administration's efforts to claim credit for increasing US oil production look very credible when they demonstrably reflected the characteristic time lags of investments made during the Bush years, and occurred largely in spite of policies such as the Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium and various onshore lease cancellations.
Meanwhile, the single largest energy development of recent years, the harnessing of vast shale gas resources, which last year supplied the equivalent of more than triple the combined output of US wind, solar and geothermal power, has occurred against a background of governmental ambivalence and occasional outright hostility, as in the case of New York's state moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". Unless the Obama administration moves to embrace shale gas, which David Brooks of the New York Times referred to in his column last week as a "wondrous gift", it might not be very hard for the President's challenger next year to portray his policies as being focused on only 3% of the energy that drives the economy, while neglecting the other 97%.
In that context, the Keystone XL decision could prove crucial. The State Department has signaled that the decision, which was anticipated by year-end, might be delayed into next year or beyond. Recent remarks hinted that the President may make the call personally. And in an interview during last Thursday's Washington Post Smart Energy Conference, Energy Secretary Chu backed away from his previous partial endorsement of the project. Taken together, these moves have me questioning the conventional wisdom that expects a grudging approval of Keystone. Turning it down outright, or killing it by attaching a set of uneconomical conditions to a contingent approval, would play well with portions of the President's base, but it might be hard to defend to independent voters later, particularly if higher oil prices or some event moved energy up the list of top election issues. Delaying a decision past the election would probably satisfy no one.
Whoever wins in 2012, the nation will need a renewed energy policy that balances the need to continue funding research and development aimed at delivering renewable energy technologies that can compete with conventional energy with little or no need for further subsidies, while simultaneously and just as vigorously promoting domestic and wider North American production of the conventional energy sources we will still need for at least another several decades, if we don't want to return to our former trend of becoming steadily more dependent on imported energy. Even if today's 3% from new renewable sources grows to 30%, we will still depend on oil, gas, nuclear and coal for the other 70%, nor can we rely on energy efficiency to end our reliance on the latter sources. I look forward to seeing more detailed energy proposals from both sides over the next year.