Thursday, July 08, 2010

Rejecting Reactive Energy Policy

I see that BP now thinks it might be able to cap its leaking Macondo well this month, rather than sometime in August, barring a major hurricane or other disruption. That can't come a moment too soon, and not just for the obvious reasons. Every day that the well continues to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico contributes to the mounting appearance of panic among policy makers, who have allowed--willingly or otherwise--the oil leak to hijack our progress towards a sensible energy policy that addresses both energy security and greenhouse gas emissions, based on a rational assessment of the tools available now and the timing of future options. The sooner the oil spill is off the front page, the sooner work can resume on that effort.

One of my old commodity-trading mentors liked to remind his more junior colleagues to "sell the news and buy the facts." By this he meant that those who get carried away by the emotion of current events are liable to be whipsawed when reason returns with a little time and perspective. More than a few members of Congress and the administration could benefit from that insight right now, as the understandable reaction to the oil spill whips up exaggerated rhetoric concerning our addiction to oil and the prospect of ending it sometime soon. Funny that we don't hear much about Europe's addiction to oil, which at least in terms of its relative reliance on oil imports looks even more serious than ours, despite astronomical motor fuel taxes and an emphasis on biodiesel that nearly matches our focus on ethanol. Since Europeans have consistently focused on this problem for years, perhaps it's just not as easy to solve as some Representatives and pundits imagine. If that's true, does it make sense to divert our focus away from a comprehensive approach to both emissions and broadly-defined energy security, in order to zero in on the most daunting element of both concerns?

First consider the oil-security portion of the problem, which in many ways was clearer in 2008, when oil prices zoomed past $100/bbl and headed for $150, until both they and the economy broke later that year. Americans got the message that conservation and efficiency were the top priorities for dealing with the cost of our oil addiction. The oil spill doesn't alter that. Although prices have come down considerably since mid-2008, they remain well above the pre-2004 level of $20-30/bbl or so, when gasoline was consistently under $1.75/gallon. As a result of those pressures, motorists cut back on their driving, and the Congress enacted--and this administration implemented--the most significant increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements in a generation, taking the new-car average CAFE standard to 34 mpg by 2016, including both passenger cars and light trucks/SUVs. Based on forecasts by the Energy Information Agency of the DOE, these rules, along with prudent conservation, should reduce US gasoline consumption by 2.6 million barrels per day by 2030, compared to pre-CAFE forecasts. And although I've disagreed with some of the specifics of these regulations, particularly for failing to correct outdated assumptions and allowing carmakers to double-count the benefit of electric vehicles, these new standards will eventually transform the US vehicle fleet and the energy it consumes.

We also shouldn't allow our revulsion at the oil spill to blind us to the emissions implications of our energy choices. In 2008 oil accounted for over 37% of US primary energy consumption and 35% of our greenhouse gas emissions, while coal contributed 22.5% of primary energy but 30.5% of emissions, including a whopping 91% of the CO2 emissions from the electric power sector. That distinction is crucial, because while we still have limited and only partially-effective substitutes for oil in transportation, where most of it is used, we possess a wide array of options for reducing the emissions from electricity generation, which consumed just 1.3% of total US oil demand last year. Several of these are economically viable today, though most require some level of subsidies or incentives. Nuclear power and geothermal energy are effective low-emission alternatives for baseload generation, while natural gas and renewables are already making significant inroads into coal's market share of overall power demand. And if implemented on a large-scale, integrated basis, carbon capture and sequestration could enable coal to continue to compete in a low-carbon electricity marketplace.

None of this suggests a return to the pre-spill status quo. The impact of the spill on the oil industry and the regulations that govern it will be significant and long-lasting, as it should be. At the same time, it would be hard to assess all of the public evidence assembled so far and not conclude that the accident that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig and led to the uncontrolled leak of many thousands of barrels per day of oil into the Gulf was entirely preventable--not by a ban on drilling in deep water, but by prudent adherence to sound operating principles and practices and the consistent enforcement of regulations to ensure that adherence by even the least-cautious operators. Yet as necessary as creating a universal culture of safety and caution in offshore drilling is, we can't let this urgent task divert our attention from the important long-term drivers of US energy policy and the actions--many already underway--necessary to address them. Good energy policy can handle all of this, while overly-reactive policies focused on the Macondo spill and the political opportunity it presents risk misallocating our priorities and creating a legacy that would make our long-term energy situation even more challenging than it already is.

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