Monday, January 28, 2008

Candidates & Energy: Romney

My push to review all the major candidates before next week's Super Tuesday moves on to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the winner of the Michigan Republican Primary and the Nevada and Wyoming Caucuses. The latest poll in Florida shows him in a statistical dead heat with John McCain, going into tomorrow's primary in that state. While he seems to share the general concern of all the candidates about energy insecurity, his views on climate change separate him from Senator McCain, and from all of the Democratic candidates. And while he clearly views energy policy as a major national priority, advocating action on a broad range of options, he speaks about the details more tentatively than most of his competitors.

The format of the energy page of Governor Romney's campaign website reflects his experience in management consulting and strategy. It leads with a video of the Governor outlining his ideas on energy. The site includes a concise statement of the energy security challenge, along with a graph of the growing gap between US oil consumption and domestic production. It lays out a vision of policy leadership, supported by four succinct, high-level strategies, with a bit of detail under each. "Increase Focus On Energy Security" looks like a filler, so it really boils down to three key ideas: more R&D, more nuclear power, and more domestic energy production. Mr. Romney would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and more of the offshore for drilling, and he's the first candidate I've seen to identify natural gas as a key concern and opportunity. It lacks the masses of detail available on the Obama or Clinton websites, but it's all pretty straightforward, with no radical departures from the status quo.

Discerning Governor Romney's position on climate change took a little more digging. Although he affirms that climate change is occurring, he stops short of apportioning responsibility between nature and humanity. More worrying, he frequently conflates climate change and energy security in a way that goes beyond any of the other candidates I've studied. He appears to believe that any progress on energy security will inevitably help the environment, including turning coal into liquid fuels. Although he mentions the potential of sequestering the CO2 emissions from coal liquefaction plants, it's not clear that he regards that as an absolute precondition for their deployment. Moreover, the idea of a price floor for liquefied coal, mentioned in the video on the campaign site, ignores our experience with the 1980s Synthetic Fuels Corporation; there are better ways to encourage technology than writing blank checks on the Treasury. Ultimately, his climate strategy appears to rely entirely on technology and incentives, without either a carbon cap or carbon tax.

While I applaud the Governor's candor on how long it would take the US to become energy independent, many of his comments on energy reflect a tentativeness and casualness about details that don't match his reputation for exhaustive analysis. Perhaps that should be reassuring. Anyone who hasn't been immersed in the details of energy for a long time ought to be cautious about appearing overly certain concerning matters that even the experts debate. At the same time, though, he has a habit of attributing ideas to others in a way that suggests they could easily be jettisoned later. He could also stand to make a clearer distinction between energy security and climate change and correct some of the misunderstandings that he has conveyed, such as the notion that we must look to France for the technology to build new nuclear power plants or reprocess nuclear waste.

As things stand now, the 2008 presidential election will hinge on the economy--with energy widely viewed as a main contributing factor--and on the perception of change. If Governor Romney became the standard-bearer of his party, he would have to convince voters that his energy plan is at least as detailed and coherent as those of the current Democratic front-runners, while also differentiating it from the policies that have led to the current situation. For many Americans, the time for "no regrets" strategies on energy and the environment has passed.

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