Friday, January 11, 2008

Candidates & Energy: Obama

Continuing my look at the energy proposals of this year's presidential candidates, let's turn to the other winner of the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL.) Where Governor Huckabee's proposals for energy and the environment appeared broad and somewhat generic, Senator Obama's are quite detailed, including specific targets for emissions, fuel economy, renewable energy and vehicle technology and performance. Despite this contrast, however, the Senator's views reflect a very similar concern about the security and environmental implications of our energy use. Although I'm skeptical about some of Mr. Obama's energy goals, such as eliminating oil imports by 2030, he has clearly devoted much thought and attention to these issues.

Energy and the environment have been consistent themes of the Obama campaign from the start. Youtube has numerous clips of his comments on energy from speeches in many different venues, along with this historical primer on energy independence, highlighting the consistent, bi-partisan failure to deliver on this goal since the 1970s. It suggests that Mr. Obama knows how to achieve it, where others before him--including two Democratic administrations--didn't. Could politics and an absence of plain speaking really be the only reasons this goal hasn't been met?

The main pathways that Mr. Obama promotes for improving energy security and reducing emissions are clean energy and efficiency. He advocates much greater use of solar, wind and geothermal power--measured against a 25% renewable electricity standard for 2025--and more biofuels, including conventional ethanol, biodiesel, and cellulosic ethanol. He would expand the Renewable Fuel Standard in the 2007 Energy Bill from 36 billion gallons in 2022 to 60 billion gallons per year by 2030. And recognizing that none of this will spring from thin air, he proposes an Apollo Program-like R&D effort to advance a broad range of energy technologies, along with capacity-building measures such as cleantech job training and manufacturing conversion.

Unsurprisingly for a Senator from Illinois, Obama supports the development and deployment of clean coal technology. However, I couldn't find any mention of nuclear power on his campaign's website. When asked about nuclear power at an event, his carefully calibrated response indicated that he doesn't regard nuclear as an important element of his energy strategy. He implied that waste and safety concerns haven't been adequately met, though he failed to cite politics as a key obstacle in addressing the former. The part of his answer that I liked best was when he said, "There is no perfect energy source. Everything has some problems right now."

With regard to climate change, the Senator calls for a stricter version of the Warner-Lieberman greenhouse gas cap-and-trade legislation currently working its way through the Congress, referencing the earlier Sanders-Boxer Bill (S.309,) which he co-sponsored. His plan differs from Warner-Lieberman in requiring deeper cuts by mid-century and auctioning 100% of the emission allowances, rather than allocating a portion to various industries and organizations. It's a simpler approach, though when MIT compared Sanders-Boxer to, among others, the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill that was the precursor of Warner-Lieberman, they concluded that the former would result in a significantly higher CO2 cost, equivalent to adding about $1.00 per gallon onto then-current gasoline prices by 2030 and $2.00/gal. by 2050.

As with his other positions, Senator Obama articulates his views on energy in a forceful and compelling fashion. He conveys a sense that he understands the challenges, has a comprehensive plan for addressing them, and knows how to create the bi-partisan political and public momentum to get it done. But although he doesn't suggest this will be cheap--citing billions of dollars for his new Apollo Program--he does imply that it will be easier than Americans ought to expect. For example, when he talks about advancing automobile fuel efficiency to 43 miles per gallon, 8 mpg above the new CAFE standard for 2020 that emerged from the arduous negotiations for the 2007 Energy Bill, he says, "That is something that we can do, right now." Perhaps, if every car were a Prius-sized hybrid. Even Toyota's Camry hybrid--a model more similar to what most Americans actually purchase--only averages 34 mpg, and all but the smallest SUV hybrids are still in the 20s. Attaining 43 mpg across the whole fleet would be tough, and it would require significant changes in vehicle technology and in the kind of vehicles we drive. As I've noted before, even plug-in hybrids aren't quite the silver bullet they appear to be, in total energy terms. That's even more true for flexible-fuel vehicles.

As bold and comprehensive as Senator Obama's energy proposals are--certainly satisfying any definition of change--they don't break with party orthodoxy or embrace some pragmatic options that could accelerate his timetable for eliminating oil imports. He ignores the option of natural gas as a lower-emission, lower-cost alternative to oil, and he has dismissed the potential of our large, untapped oil and gas resources. In 2006 he voted against even a modest expansion of the allowed area for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Although Mr. Obama prides himself on telling people what they need to hear, rather than just what they want to hear, I don't see much that might be unpopular with the party's base.

You can't watch Senator Obama speak without understanding his infectious popularity, especially with new voters and those jaded by partisan politics, pessimism and gridlock. In my corporate career and subsequent consulting, I have seen how difficult it is to strike a balance between the old and the new, between the things that provide the lifeblood of the organization today, and those that will be needed to sustain it into the future. Senator Obama has a big chunk of the latter down pat, when it comes to energy and the environment. Perhaps my age is showing, however, when I worry that a campaign that is so focused on new ideas and change could have a hard time accepting that some of those ideas might not be workable, or taking a fact-based look at why some elements of the energy status quo cannot be rejected out of hand, without disrupting the supply lines on which our economy depends. It's that sort of tempering that I'll be watching for, in the weeks and months ahead.

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