Thursday, November 29, 2007

Energy Politics

This week I'm enjoying being the "accompanying spouse" at a professional conference that my wife is attending. Once my table-mates at the spouse's breakfast found out what I do, I could hardly finish my meal, because I was bombarded by questions. I've had a lot of practice explaining why oil and gasoline are so expensive, and whether one energy technology is more attractive than another. The toughest questions to answer are those that address the apparent absence of national political will to solve our energy problems. There has been a lot of talk about energy policy in the last few years, but far too little about energy politics.

When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision to maintain a non-partisan tone. I firmly believe that any effective national energy policy must be bi-partisan, and that the divergence of approach of the two major parties on energy has been a great hindrance to creating the kind of consistent, long-term environment that is essential for attracting the hundreds of billions of dollars of additional private-sector investments in technology and infrastructure that will be necessary. Energy investments require some stability over multiple election cycles.

As we get closer to next year's presidential election, I'll devote more time to the specific energy proposals of the candidates on both sides. In the meantime, what I keep hoping to hear one of them say--and I am not holding my breath, here--is that setting clear, consistent goals and strategies for energy is a necessary prerequisite to enacting the tactics. I also want to hear that, if we want to solve the immense, intertwined challenges of energy and climate change, all of the options need to be on the table. That includes standard energy issues such as fuel economy, nuclear power, energy taxes, offshore drilling, ANWR, and renewables, but it should also extend to some of the fundamental drivers of energy demand, including the growth of long-distance commuting, McMansion-style homes, electricity-guzzling appliances such as plasma televisions, and all of the other things that have helped increase total US energy consumption by roughly 25% since the early 1980s. In this context, even immigration is an energy issue.

The candidate who is willing to tackle all of the above would almost certainly get my vote, but I suspect he or she would become instantly unelectable, by virtue of losing the support of the many advocacy groups that are working overtime to take many of these same options off the table, or to prevent them from being considered in the first place. Simply recognizing that our energy and environmental problems lack quick and easy fixes, and that "energy independence" is exactly the wrong way to think about these issues, would go a long way. It might even be possible to articulate that without alienating all of the groups that actually get candidates elected.

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