Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sputnik State of the Union

Energy didn't feature as prominently in last night's State of the Union Address as it has in some years, including last year's speech. Rather than making it a primary focus area, the President seemed to mention it more as an example of his broader innovation and competitiveness agenda. That's probably a good thing, because the administration's persistence in pitting conventional energy against renewables reflects the muddle in which US energy policy remains. We're desperately worried that China is getting ahead of us in renewable energy, yet we don't seem to notice that China is hardly treating oil and gas as yesterday's energy. I suspect that from China's perspective, their focus is not especially on renewable energy or clean energy but on cheap energy, which is what their economy needs to grow. I wouldn't think we're so different in that regard.

I won't waste time dissecting the President's suggestion to strip the oil & gas industry of its tax benefits in order to fund a new or expanded clean energy innovation effort. If the administration couldn't make that happen when its party dominated both houses of Congress by large majorities, then this idea is simply dead on arrival in an era of divided government. The best way to address those subsidies, along with the much larger per-barrel subsidy for ethanol, is through the kind of tax reform that would make all US industries more competitive globally. So I was pleased to hear the President suggest simplifying the tax code and reducing the corporate income tax.

Innovation and tax reform will indeed be crucial if the US wants to be a leader in clean energy technology, not just as the favored beneficiary of today's version of our periodic debate over industrial policy--picking winners--but as one part of a more robust and competitive US manufacturing sector. However, it's myopic to compare ourselves to China on infrastructure and clean energy innovation while ignoring China's full-court press to meet its rapidly growing demand for oil and gas. China doesn't have an offshore drilling moratorium or "permitorium"; instead it has focused on offshore drilling as a primary means for expanding its domestic production and limiting its oil imports, which a few years ago eclipsed those of Japan as the world's second largest, behind our own. Chinese companies are investing in oil & gas projects, joint ventures and acquisitions all over the world, because China recognizes that oil wasn't just the dominant fuel of the 20th century; it remains a key energy source in the 21st. And for those worried about China's lead in renewable energy, exemplified by the news that its wind power capacity surpassed that of the US last year, I recommend Michael Levi's article in Foreign Policy.

On a more positive note, President Obama seemed to signal his support for moving the debate on a national renewable energy standard toward encompassing all clean energy. His remarks suggested that this would include not just nuclear power--by far our largest source of low-emission energy today--but also natural gas and clean coal. With those inclusions, the goal he suggested of generating 80% of our electricity from "clean energy sources" by 2035 could be the most achievable energy goal his administration has put forward since taking office. With coal's share of electricity generation currently at 45%, it would require increasing the contribution from nuclear, renewables and natural gas by just under half--or less with some help from efficiency and conservation. Not easy, but not impossible, either, as long as we build enough new nuclear power plants to more than replace the ones that will likely have been retired by then.

Whether or not this is truly "our generation's Sputnik moment", the speech's recurring theme exhorting us to "win the future" was perhaps a bit too reminiscent of another presidential speech centered on a different kind of "WIN". Ensuring that this initiative doesn't share the fate of that earlier one in the Ford Administration might just depend on making sure that in an environment of tightening purse strings, the government's investments in new energy are focused on making clean energy cheap enough to compete without unsustainable subsidies. In the meantime, while we're waiting for that effort to bear fruit, it's worth recalling that America's conventional energy industry is still one sector in which we don't have to catch up with anyone else, unless we deliberately set out to hamstring it.

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