Tuesday, January 16, 2007

On-Target Advice

Even though I've moved away from the greater New York area, I still try to keep up with the New York Times, not because it's a better paper than the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post--it's not--but because it's still influential with American elites. While the quality of the Times' reporting on energy has improved dramatically over the last several years, its editorial record in this area generally hasn't, and I've devoted a fair amount of space on this blog to refuting various assertions and recommendations they've made. Now and again, though, they get it right, and today's editorial on "Energy Time" is a fine example, with three practical "guideposts" for Congress, as it considers new energy legislation. All three points constitute sound advice, but each could have been made even more helpful, if the Times were more willing to challenge their own preconceptions and biases about energy.

The first piece of advice to Congress is to keep energy legislation simpler, implying the inclusion of less pork and fewer pet projects. They hold up pending legislation from Senators Reid and Bingaman on reducing oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions as a positive example. But they should have also reminded the Congress that legislation alone won't solve these problems, without also convincing the American people of the urgency involved, and of the personal responsibility each of us bears for our energy use and emissions. Technology investments will take years to bear fruit; behavioral changes can begin now.

The second suggestion deals with the avoidance of partisanship, while paradoxically endorsing the new leadership's push to eliminate tax benefits for the oil companies that must surely play a major role in any serious effort to improve our energy security. A truly bi-partisan approach would harness both the Democrats' clear understanding of the need to reduce demand growth and the Republicans' long-standing focus on supply. In this regard, bi-partisan = supply + demand.

The editor's final admonition is a reminder that getting serious about energy will cost a great deal of money, using coal-to-liquids as an example. He should have added that most of that money will have to come from investors, rather than from government, because even without our trade and fiscal deficits, the government has neither the wherewithal nor the mandate to build and own large-scale energy infrastructure. That means investors must see the prospect of attractive returns, relative to their alternatives. The government's role here is in providing national energy objectives, a consistent tax and regulatory framework, wise incentives, seed capital, and long-range R&D--things the private sector either can't or won't do--and then unleashing the enormous power of American capitalism to deliver.

I give the New York Times a lot of credit for understanding the importance of energy, and for seeing the relationship between solving our energy problems and dealing with climate change, even if they don't always get the details right. They've started an energy blog on their Times Select subscriber service, and it's telling that the blogger they hired is a journalist who covers energy, rather than someone with deep energy experience, either in industry or government. The missing ingredient at the Times is the ability not just to report on the industry, but to see the world from the industry's perspective, without necessarily having to agree with it.

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