Friday, June 06, 2008

Electoral Skepticism

Now that the Democratic Party has a presumptive nominee, the general election campaign has begun in earnest. Messages geared to attracting party loyalists and broadening the base will give way to a focus on "battleground" states and independent voters. With gasoline now priced over $4 per gallon in many markets across the US, and with concerns about energy growing, we should expect to hear a good deal more about the candidate's proposals for tackling our reliance on imported energy, along with the environmental consequences of its use. As we absorb these messages, I hope we retain the natural skepticism with which Americans have generally regarded campaign promises. The unfortunate truth is that there is little that any president can do to bring down energy prices or dramatically reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil within the next four years.

I've heard many statements and suggestions from both parties with regard to energy over the past year. While some of them clearly reflected objective analysis and sincere beliefs, others were easily discernible as calculated efforts to bolster a candidate's standing with the voters of his or her party, and possessed only a tenuous connection to what is realistic or even possible. As the campaign shifts into general election mode, it is time to stop discounting these assertions for partisan content and subject them to serious scrutiny. When it comes to energy, in particular, a dose of healthy skepticism is in order.

Take the drumbeat from both parties for energy independence, as an example. Even if we assume that this phrase is intended in a relative, rather than absolute sense--as in more energy independence--the chance of a dramatic shift within the next four years on this metric is slight. The scale of our energy imports is too great and the net contribution of our preferred options too small at this point to make much of a dent in the net 12 million barrels of petroleum and 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas we import every day. Even if every new car sold in America delivered an actual city/highway average of 30 miles per gallon starting tomorrow, in four years this would only improve the average fuel economy of our total fleet by 2 mpg, which might reduce imports by one million barrels per day, if it wasn't partially offset by a rebound in vehicle miles traveled. Doubling our ethanol output --an increasingly dicey proposition, given concerns about food vs. fuel competition--would displace the equivalent of another 300,000 barrels per day of oil. Doubling our current wind power capacity might save the equivalent of 1 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas.

After adding up all these contributions and even assuming that some form of cap and trade or carbon tax will eventually be enacted, it remains an absolute certainty that the 2012 presidential election will take place in the context of very large US energy imports. The next president would be wise to eschew the temptation of quick fixes and instead focus his efforts on promoting energy efficiency and ensuring that the nation has diverse and reliable supplies of conventional energy, as we undertake the long transition to a more sustainable energy mix. If he instead creates the expectation of an energy revolution, how satisfied would the public be with the steady accumulation of incremental progress that is probably the best we can hope for in the near term?

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