Monday, March 14, 2016

Energy and the 2016 Presidential Primaries

With another round of important primary elections taking place this week, I am sadly tardy in taking a high-level look at the energy positions of the candidates. The winnowing that has already taken place simplifies the task, even as it raises the stakes: A further contraction of the field after the voting in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio could eliminate whole approaches to national energy policy.

The divide on energy between the Republican and Democratic fields also seems wider than in recent years. In 2008, when oil prices were approaching an all-time high, Republicans placed more emphasis on resource access--"drill baby, drill"--but both major party nominees supported cap-and-trade to address climate change. After recent remarks by Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders, this November's election is shaping up as a binary choice between the continuation of the energy revolution that has saved the US hundreds of billions of dollars, and the elevation of environmental concerns as the main criteria for future energy decisions.

I'll take a closer look at the energy positions of the remaining Democratic candidates in a future post. For now I want to focus on the Republican field, because the first round of winner-take-all primaries looks like a make-or-break moment for the two candidates with the most detailed published positions on energy:
  • Kasich - On his campaign website the Ohio governor argues for increasing US energy supplies from all sources, including efficiency and conservation.  He endorses North American energy independence, but also sees the need for innovation in clean energy technology. He would rein in regulation, including the Clean Power Plan, to "balance environmental stewardship with job creation." And while he has supported the development of Ohio's Utica shale, putting the state in the top rank of natural gas producers for the first time in decades, he has also led an effort to increase state taxes on oil and gas production. The appeal of Governor Kasich's positions to moderates is understandable, although no one would mistake them for a 2016 Democrat's energy platform.
  • Rubio - The Florida senator's energy proposals are even more detailed, with more of a legislative focus than Governor Kasich's. Their tone is simultaneously positive and adversarial: Senator Rubio has an upbeat vision for the role energy can play for the US, and much of it is presented on his website in counterpoint to the actions and priorities of an administration he clearly believes has largely been mistaken on energy. There's a "wonkish" flavor to much of the content, such as his argument for education reform to fill the jobs energy development can help create. Although a reference to support for the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership might be a red flag in a year dominated by populist sentiment, most of the ideas here fall solidly within the mainstream of recent conservative thought on energy.
Each of the other two remaining Republicans represents a more significant departure from their party's recent approach to energy, at least at the presidential level:
  • Cruz - Senator Cruz appears to take a more overtly libertarian stance on energy and what he calls the Great American Energy Renaissance. He wouldn't just lighten federal regulation of energy, as his rivals advocate; he would take on the government's ability to regulate. For example, in addition to opposing the Clean Power Plan, he co-sponsored legislation that would make it much harder for the EPA and administration to use the federal Clean Air Act to devise other ways to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Consistent with his plan to abolish the IRS, he would also eliminate the Department of Energy. He supports an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but on a level playing field. Ethanol, for example, after his phase-out of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, would have to find its way into the energy mix without a federal mandate or subsidies.  
  • Trump - From my quick perusal of it, the Trump website lacks the kind of specifics on energy that are found on the other candidates' sites. We are left to piece together Mr. Trump's positions on energy based on his answers to specific questions or issues, elsewhere. You can find a number of quotes from those on Google. If there's a unifying principle to his views on energy, he seems to be as deal-focused as on other topics, and less allergic to using the power of government than his opponents.  For example, he supported the Keystone XL pipeline but apparently thought we could get a better deal from Canada and the project developer. If Dilbert creator Scott Adams is correct in his analysis of Donald Trump as a Master Persuader, the details of his views on any issue like this matter less in an election than how he frames them.  
The energy context of the 2016 election could not be more different than that of four or eight years ago. A global oil glut and natural gas priced low enough to edge out coal for the top spot in US power generation are giving candidates a rare luxury. They can address energy without the pressure of angry consumers demanding immediate answers. However, even if the election will not be decided based on energy, it remains a major pillar of the economy. How candidates view energy can shed important light on the consistency of their other positions. I expect to return to this point in the weeks ahead.

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