Friday, April 01, 2011

Obama on Energy: Getting the Balance Right

Another energy crisis, another presidential speech? It must seem that way to many of us who came of age in the first set of energy crises in the 1970s, and the President acknowledged that history in his talk on energy at Georgetown University on Wednesday. Yet although it contained little in the way of new ideas or initiatives, along with a target that was remarkable mainly for the relative ease with which it might be met, it at least presented a perspective that balances the continuing importance of our current energy sources with the potential of our new ones. No more talk of "yesterday's energy."

I was under the weather this week, so this is at least a day later than it should be, but if nothing else was clear from Wednesday's speech it's that our energy challenges have persisted for so long, while our preferred solutions have shifted with the mood of the moment, that a day or a week changes nothing. However, a sense of urgency matters, as gasoline prices rise to levels we haven't seen since 2008. A president can't be seen to be behind the curve on this issue. Except for a few quibbles I'll come back to, Mr. Obama got matters mostly right, reminding his audience that we will remain dependent on oil for a long time, and that increasing domestic oil production and relying on stable neighbors are both crucial strategies for managing our vulnerability to imports from less dependable sources. That puts him squarely in the mainstream of serious American energy thinking for the last four decades.

The President's goal of reducing oil imports by one-third from their level of 11 million barrels per day in 2008 seemed appropriate for several reasons. First, because the basis of that goal is the right one: net imports of crude oil and petroleum products. It would do little for our energy security to reduce crude imports by constraining US refineries and then importing more refined products from abroad. Nor should one ignore the growing US exports of refined products arising from mismatches between US fuel regulations and refinery configurations and yields. More importantly, this is one of the first energy security goals I've seen that we stand a fair chance of achieving. The DOE's preliminary forecast for 2011-35 shows a 17% reduction in oil imports by 2025 in the reference, or base case. Last year's forecast for the high oil price case showed an even steeper reduction, meeting Mr. Obama's goal as early as 2021. Reaching the President's target shouldn't require Herculean efforts, provided we stay focused on the things with the greatest potential to deliver in that timeframe: increased domestic production, efficiency, and possibly next-generation biofuels. That leaves out electric vehicles, which are a longer-term proposition, along with wind, solar and other renewable electricity sources, which only stand to displace oil via EVs. (Remember, a million EVs replace less than 0.2% of our oil consumption.)

The President was right to highlight the potential contribution from biofuels while calling for reform in biofuel subsidies, a task that is long overdue. He cited two examples of how biofuels could help to reduce our oil imports. One related to the military's goal of obtaining half its domestic jet fuel needs from alternatives to petroleum, while the other promoted four "next-generation biorefineries", referring to facilities that produce fuel from non-food biomass. Unfortunately, he didn't mention cost as one of the key trade-offs involved. It's laudable for the military to seek to reduce its vulnerability to oil-supply disruptions, and it can provide a crucial early-adopter base for new technologies. However, to the extent that bio-based jet fuel is more expensive than conventional fuel, then either Air Force operating budgets must include cuts in other areas, such as missions and training, or we will be buying fewer new-gen aircraft to pay for it. And while subsidies can help next-gen biofuels reach commercial scale--I don't consider 20 million gallons per year (1,300 bbl/day) as meeting that definition--they can't guarantee they will be commercial. That will require mastery of one or more of the numerous technology paths now being pursued, more than a few of which have already disappointed. Technological mastery doesn't appear on command.

That's an important consideration, because as desirable as it is to produce large quantities of biofuel without setting up ruinous competition between food and fuel, it seems equally important not to build another industry that will be unprofitable without sustained large government subsidies for decades to come. Helping new technologies through the development stage and across the "commercialization chasm" makes sense, but the level of support now offered for cellulosic biofuel, at $1.01/gal., looks unaffordable once output finally start to take off. As it is, corn-based ethanol will collect roughly $6.3 billion this year from a subsidy less than half that generous, for its displacement of just under 7% of our gasoline consumption on an energy-equivalent basis.

That brings us to the only item in Wednesday's talk that we haven't been hearing about for years: the application of the nation's newly-tapped shale gas bonanza to address the problem of our oil imports. Aside from the jokey references to the expertise of his Secretary of Energy, whose Nobel Prize in Physics was for "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light"--not so relevant to natural gas extraction--this was the speech's money line. Shale gas is the only new technology we have that can deliver huge amounts of energy to compete directly with oil in transportation using off-the-shelf-technology: no breakthroughs required. This would have sounded even more impressive and serious if the punch line had focused on knocking down the barriers to making that happen, including infrastructure requirements and vehicle conversion costs, rather than calling for a bill regulating the production of shale gas.

And unfortunately, that was symptomatic of the things that kept the President's talk from being a landmark in our decades-long battle with energy security. It's one thing to state the problem clearly and lay out the options; it's another to bring it all together in a realistic plan for action. The administration's new "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" merely incorporates natural gas into a grab bag of many of the same initiatives it has been pushing since Inauguration Day 2009. Nor does it help when the President repeats his old talking point about the US consuming 25% of the world's oil (it was actually 22% last year) but having only 2% of its oil reserves. Someone needs to pull him aside and explain that current US proved reserves are no more of a limitation on future US oil production than wind power's contribution of just 2% of US power generation last year caps its future potential at that level. Reserves support today's production; resources determine tomorrow's, and the US has many billions of barrels of untapped resources, many of which remain off limits under the administration's policies.

So call it two-thirds of a great speech on energy. Unfortunately, what we desperately need is that missing third that concentrates it into something that the American people--and American industry--can rally behind.

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