Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Candidates & Energy: Obama Revisited

The US Presidential election is now under three weeks away, after the longest campaign in living memory. Unsurprisingly, after several years of escalating oil prices, energy features prominently in the programs of both candidates, as does a response to growing concerns about climate change. Senator McCain and Senator Obama have spoken extensively on these issues, and both campaigns' websites feature lengthy discussions on US energy challenges and the possible solutions to them. Unfortunately, their ideas must be weighed in the context of a weakening economy and a federal budget deficit that may ultimately approach a trillion dollars per year. With their attention focused on the financial crisis and the shifting electoral map, it is not clear how much thought either campaign has devoted to reassessing their energy and climate programs in light of the changed circumstances in which the next administration will find itself. After flipping a coin, I will begin with Senator Obama and follow up with a review of Senator McCain's energy proposals within a week.

It seems appropriate at the start to remind my readers of this blog's determined non-partisan stance. My focus is on the candidates' energy policies and anything relevant to those, without making any endorsement. My goal is to provide my readers with insights on the energy aspects of these two candidates' proposals, including their pitfalls, based on my own perspective and experience. However important, energy is only one issue among the many upon which they should base their choice.

Senator Obama has a detailed, coherent energy plan, and his team has clearly spent a lot of time assembling and refining the energy proposals outlined on the campaign's website. Compared to the version I examined in January, during the primaries, the Senator's energy and climate framework has evolved and become more realistic. Although energy independence is still a major theme of Senator Obama's energy platform, his independence goal has become more specific and less ambitious. It is currently stated in terms of reducing our oil imports by an amount comparable to what the US receives today from the Middle East and Venezuela. That equates to around 3.3 million barrels per day, or roughly one-third of net US oil imports in 2007. As I noted recently, such a reduction just might be feasible, but not without a significant effort to ensure that US oil production does not continue to decline. Instead, Senator Obama appears to consider the US tapped out for oil, and apparently expects his energy independence goals to be met without more help from that quarter.

That assessment pervades his approach to the oil & gas industry, though recently he has described natural gas in more favorable terms. It is also consistent with his periodic citations of the "3% of reserves vs. 25% of consumption" soundbite, which drastically understates the remaining resource potential of the US. This may explain his 2006 vote against a modest expansion of the allowed drilling area in the Gulf of Mexico, and his restrained support for expanded access to oil & gas during this summer's Congressional debate on various drilling proposals.

If anything, he seems to regard the domestic oil industry not as a potential source of new supply, but as a source of new tax revenue. His short-term energy program leads off with one-time energy rebates--$1,000 per family or $500 per individual taxpayer--funded by a windfall profits tax on oil companies. He hasn't put a price tag on this, but assuming all taxpayers would be eligible, it would require on the order of $20 billion dollars per year in new taxes over the next five years. Although there are legitimate differences of opinion on the justification for such a tax, its consequences for future US oil output are unambiguous: what you tax more, you get less of. The most positive elements of the Senator's oil strategy feature some interesting ideas for extracting more oil from existing reservoirs through CO2 injection--simultaneously sequestering it. He also supports building a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower-48.

With regard to climate change, Senator Obama shares my preference for an emissions cap with credit trading over a carbon tax. His version would be stricter than the one embodied in the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Bill defeated earlier this year, with deeper cuts and auctioning of all credits. Although the latter reflects the view that partial auctioning in the EU's limited cap & trade system resulted in a windfall for emitting industries, it also increases the revenues that would be collected to well over $100 billion per year, based on current emissions and the likely cost of credits. The Congressional wrangling over how to spend the smaller windfall from Boxer-Lieberman-Warner was nearly enough to turn me against a policy I have promoted for nearly a decade. We also can't lose sight of the fact that, like a tax, cap-and-trade would raise energy costs for consumers and businesses. That may be a necessary evil, but it is still a fact that has received precious little attention in this campaign. If the price of emissions credits settles at the current European level, we would see gasoline go up by about $0.35/gal, and electricity prices rise by up to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Nor would cap & trade supersede the existing system of selective incentives and tax credits. Initially, at least, it would be additive to these, and apparently also to Senator Obama's $150 billion plan to promote alternative energy technologies over the next 10 years, along with a new low-carbon fuel standard and a greatly-expanded federal biofuels mandate--from 36 billion gallons per year (BGY) by 2022 to 60 BGY by 2030. I still regard the 36 BGY target with its 21 BGY of cellulosic and other advanced biofuel as a stretch, since the first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plant has yet to start up. 60 billion gallons is beyond ambitious.

Not every element of Senator Obama's energy plan represents a departure from current policy. His proposal for a 4% per year improvement in Corporate Average Fuel Economy for vehicles is broadly consistent with the 35 mile-per-gallon fleet CAFE target for 2022 adopted in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and his proposed tax credit of up to $7,000 per car for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles closely resembles the incentives included in the $700 billion rescue bill recently signed into law. And with regard to "clean coal", his approach seems similar to the Department of Energy's restructuring of its Futuregen program, earlier this year.

There is much to like about Senator Obama's positive vision of cleaner energy, focused on making America more self-sufficient. At the same time, it would impose the biggest and most intrusive changes on US energy markets since at least 1980, entailing the collection and redistribution of many hundreds of billions of dollars--not temporarily, as contemplated for the current federal intervention in financial markets, but on an effectively perpetual basis. The benefits of cutting our energy imports and greenhouse gas emissions to a more sustainable level would be significant, though if we are serious about reducing our reliance on unstable foreign oil suppliers, it is counter-productive to pit solar, wind and biofuels against domestic oil & gas, which today contribute roughly 30 times as much net energy to the US economy, and could do more. We may indeed be entering a new era of big government; however, while parts of the Senator's energy plan would stimulate new industries and new jobs, other portions would act as a drag on existing businesses, and on consumers. This may ultimately be necessary, in order to tackle climate change, but undertaking it during a recession would complicate efforts to revive the whole economy, not just its new green parts.

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