Monday, November 01, 2010

What Won't Change After the Election?

Tomorrow's US mid-term election dominates today's headlines, with most analysts expecting a dramatic shift in control, at least in the House of Representatives. However, from an energy perspective, many aspects of the situation in which we will find ourselves after the ballots are counted will remain largely predetermined for the next two years, going into the 2012 election. As candidates debate differing perspectives on energy it's worth recalling the tremendous inertia of our energy systems. The seeds of significant change have already been planted and are promoting a gradual transformation, but the results will be more evident when we look back at the end of the decade than while it is underway.

One given is that for at least the next two years, fossil fuels will continue to supply well over 90% of US transportation energy and more than 2/3rds of US electricity generation, with nuclear and conventional hydropower accounting for more than 80% of the low-emitting remainder. Even though wind and solar power are still growing rapidly, though the former has slowed down appreciably compared to last year, they are still too small to make a significant difference in our consumption or emissions, and that will remain the case in 2012. Advocates of wind power and other renewables lament the lack of comprehensive energy legislation or a more focused national renewable electricity standard, but weak fundamentals have at least as much to do with the slowing rate of wind installations. US electricity demand has recovered somewhat from its low point last year, but it remains around 2% below its high of 2007. That has made utilities more reluctant to add generation of any kind, particularly in light of the strong emphasis on efficiency measures in the policies enacted in the last several years, starting with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and reinforced by last year's stimulus.

Another given is that oil will continue to dominate our concerns about energy security. The economic slowdown reduced net US imports of crude oil and petroleum products by 20%, compared to 2007, but even at this level imports are still a third larger than domestic production of crude oil and natural gas liquids--a disparity that is set to grow for two reasons. First, the greatly reduced rate of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the moratorium that was imposed in response is already starting to reverse the gains in US oil output that we saw in the last several years. Mature offshore fields are declining, while new projects will be slower to come online. Not even the remarkable success of onshore drilling in the Bakken formation of the Dakotas and Montana, which has moved North Dakota up to number four among oil producing states--past perennial heavyweights like Louisiana and Oklahoma--is likely to compensate for slower growth from the Gulf.

Nor are biofuels likely to add enough production in the next two years to avoid an increase in our oil imports, as ethanol approaches the limits of corn ethanol output and faces the expiration of the tax credit it has enjoyed since 1978. And while the proliferation of hybrids, electric vehicles and other efficient car models is a step in the right direction, their numbers are too small for now to counteract any increase in miles traveled. Even a modest amount of demand growth from a recovering economy will set US oil and refined product imports climbing again, with a corresponding impact on world oil prices and our trade deficit.

There's little doubt that the incoming 112th Congress will have a different approach to energy and its related environmental issues than the outgoing 111th has had. That could prove significant for many aspects of US energy policy, including climate policy. At the same time, the new members of the House and Senate are likely to find, as past Congresses have, that our energy challenges are less responsive to intervention than they assumed. I wouldn't be surprised if the biggest impact on energy in the next two years comes not from energy legislation, but from the indirect effect of whatever steps are taken to address our larger economic problems.

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