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PlanetPolicy

President Obama, It’s Time to Act on Energy Policy

Dear President Obama,

On Tuesday, our party suffered a devastating loss. While the pundits will be debating the reasons over the next number of months, it is imperative that those of us who have been your long term supporters take the path of Edgar at the end of King Lear and “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Your “all of the above energy policy” has been at best incomplete and at worst an illustration of a misunderstanding of the energy reality we live in.

Since receiving the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on long-term nuclear waste management, your Administration has taken no action in implementing any of its major recommendations. In addition, your opposition to Yucca Mountain, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported on the safety of as a long term nuclear waste repository, has wasted billions in taxpayer revenues and added huge costs to the electric utility companies which generate nuclear energy. Keep in mind nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases which have been supposedly a cornerstone of your administration’s environmental policy. It is time to join the new Republican Leadership in Congress and support opening Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste disposal immediately.

As for your policies on the nation’s coal industry, during the campaign you were missing in action to say the least. Despite some impressive achievements by ARPA-E in supporting clean coal technology both in the US and abroad, these polices remain largely unknown in the coal producing states where you are viewed as having launched a “war on coal” as coal plant after coal plant has been closed down under new EPA regulations. Given your deep concern about global climate change, would it not show greater leadership to lead a global research and development program to prove within the short term that carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is both technologically and commercially viable? Do you really believe that a nation that developed the atomic bomb and put astronauts on the moon cannot rise up and meet this challenge? Wouldn’t policies that challenge a whole new generation of engineers and technologists to use coal in a clean and energy efficient manner be inspiring? The fact that our coal exports are near an all-time high makes a mockery of our nation’s environmental policies, since in actuality all we are doing is exporting our pollution elsewhere, including China and India, rather than being leader in technological advancements that can utilize coal efficiently and dispose of it safely here at home. As an expert in the energy industry for several decades I am aware that the way we use coal today is inefficient and detrimental to the planet. Moving emissions from one country to another does not reduce the effects of climate change. Moreover, I again agree that coal as it stands is not sustainable, so then if saving the environment and reducing emissions is truly part of your Administration’s agenda, why are we backing out nuclear before coal? Shouldn’t there be more support for advanced nuclear R&D, such as molten salt reactors and other advanced designs as well as appropriate safety and regulatory standards for these new designs? We have the opportunity to set the gold standard in advanced technologies in nuclear and coal generation and significantly reduce emissions and hinder climate change!

Another vexing aspect of your energy policies is your continued reluctance to approve the Keystone XL pipeline which would allow our newly found bounty of unconventional oil to flow to the Gulf Coast. Your failure to approve the pipeline despite positive environmental assessments and strong public support has led to the development of more expensive and dangerous alternative modes (rail and barge) of transportation leading to a number of dangerous accidents. One such accident, in Lynchburg, Virginia, caused a number of tank cars to derail into the James River, which nearly incinerated a large portion of the downtown. Rhetoric claims the delay for Keystone rests with the “NIMBY” attitude, but actually Keystone would keep the oil transportation out of your backyard, while rail drives it straight through it. Furthermore, your failure and those of both of your Secretaries of State to approve Keystone XL has led to a deterioration in our relations with Canada, our largest trading partner and one of the few allies that has consistently joined our brave men and women in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

Additionally, if you really believe in an “all of the above” energy policy, why do you consistently refer to the oil industry in pejorative terms such as “Big Oil” or as “fat cats” and attack the tax benefits the industry receives? In fact, the industry is highly fragmented and many of the smaller independents who drill a considerable amount of wells need these tax benefits because they do not have deep pockets and need these tax provisions to provide the cash flow that allows them to drill the next well. Mr. President why didn’t you go on the stump and tell the American people that the unconventional oil and gas boom on your watch has created thousands of direct and indirect jobs, lowered gasoline, propane and home heating oil prices. Your failure to do so may have lost us several integral Senate seats.

While you deserve credit for your vigorous support of renewables and your past and present concern about global climate change, why do you and other members of your administration in supporting subsidies for wind and solar use the occasion to note that subsidies for polluting fossil fuels should be cut back or scrapped and the money given to clean energy? Mr. President, while windmills and solar panels do offer positive climate change benefits, they are not entirely benign. And furthermore, until energy storage technologies have a breakthrough, renewables will take some time to achieve true market penetration. The key to our energy security is a healthy diverse energy portfolio in combination with energy efficiency. The best route to get there is R&D in clean coal, nuclear and energy storage.

Those of us who support you wish you the best. However, please be honest that we cannot scale up electric, CNG, LNG, methanol or other fuels to run our cars and trucks in any reasonable time horizon and admit that fossil fuels will be with us for years to come as we grow more dependent on energy to power our everyday lives. Also it is necessary for you to state clearly that we cannot solve environmental issues and fight climate change without getting countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, South Africa etc. on board—if we do not, it does not matter what we do as we will not be able to stabilize the atmosphere. This is exactly why we as the greatest nation and a proven leader in many aspects of life must now become a leader in the future of energy technologies. If we figure out CCS and energy storage (and there is no doubt that we will) these countries will follow suit and this is our greatest strength in warding off climate change.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you want a level playing for all fuels, then go to the new House and Senate in January and ask that all direct and indirect tax benefits for all fuels across the board be cut immediately. This should in theory please a supposedly fiscally concerned Republican-controlled House and Senate. In exchange get them to agree to enact a carbon tax immediately of at least $40/ton. You may win, you may lose, but as a man who believes that reducing climate change is the existential challenge of our time, you will be remembered in the pantheon of our great leaders who like Theodore Roosevelt, “dared to dare greatly and who never joined those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.” 

Author

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on Brookings.edu are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.

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