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Many are wondering why President Obama has not used the environmental catastrophe in the gulf to beat up on the oil companies or to advance game-changing energy and environmental policies.  The answer is simple.  He is not a Green revolutionary.  He told us during the campaign, and he continues to tell us today, that oil and coal are at the foundation of his energy policies.

The President still believes that deepwater drilling for oil is essential to our energy security.  Announcing a commission to investigate the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the President emphasized that "the Gulf of Mexico can play an important part in securing our energy future."   The problem, according to the President, is not with oil or deepwater drilling.  The problem is the "cozy relationship" that developed "between oil and gas companies and the agencies that regulate them."

His solution, therefore, is to fix the regulations and the regulators.  He does not reject those who cheer "Drill Baby Drill."  He just wants the oil companies to be more careful when they do the drilling.

This should come as no surprise.  During the campaign, he never said that we should reduce our dependence on oil.  He always said that we should reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  If you did not understand what he meant then, you should understand what he means now.  President Obama is in favor of increasing our dependence on domestic oil.

The President's approach to coal has been very similar.  He wants us to use more coal, not less.  One of his first "environmental" initiatives was to establish a task force to study "ways to increase the use of coal in meeting the nation's energy needs without increasing the pollution that contributes to global warming."  Calling coal "one of our most abundant energy resources," the President said that we just need to figure out how to make it cleaner and safer.  "If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal," he said, "it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future."

To be fair, President Obama is a strong supporter of increasing energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.  He is spending $5 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to improve the insulation and windows in low-income housing.  He issued an Executive Order requiring federal government agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2020.  He forced out top management of some US car makers and gave them a new direction that includes fuel efficient and electric vehicles.  He favors extending fuel efficiency standards to heavy trucks.

The President belongs to a group that considers themselves energy realists.  The energy realists point out that renewables make up such a tiny percentage of total energy production today that a doubling, tripling or even quadrupling of renewable energy resources will not have any meaningful impact on our mix of energy sources.  The solution, according to the energy realists, will come only with technological breakthroughs.  In the meantime, we have to focus on reducing our dependence on "foreign" oil by increasing our energy efficiency and by exploiting "domestic" sources of energy -- including oil and coal.

The problem, of course, is that much of what President Obama is doing could turn out to be temporary.  A subsequent administration could easily rescind the Executive Order on federal government greenhouse gas emissions and relax enforcement of any new regulations.  The buildings that are being "weatherized" with better insulation and windows today are mostly old, inefficient structures that should and will be torn down one day.  The oil and coal companies will continue to face very little competition from alternative energy and will continue to have inordinate influence in both the economy and the political system.

As for the two initiatives with the greatest potential to have long-term effects -- electric cars and carbon capture and sequestration -- many environmentalists have a sense of deja vu all over again.  They remember the oil embargo in the 1970's, when an initial push for smaller, fuel-efficient cars was followed by the invention of gas-guzzling SUVs.  And they fear that government-funded research into carbon capture and sequestration may go the way of President Carter's government-funded synfuels corporation.

These environmentalists are looking for a Green Revolution with game-changing policies and a permanent restructuring of energy economics.  Instead of government subsidies and tax breaks for oil and coal, the Green Revolutionaries want to shift those subsidies to renewable energy, and then raise the price of oil and coal to account for the cost of pollution.  The ultimate objective of this revolution is not just to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but to reduce and ultimately eliminate our use of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels whatever the source.

Whether or not those are realistic objectives is open for debate.  But one thing is certain.  President Obama is not going to lead that revolution.  He has a much higher tolerance for a little gray with his green.

John Howley
Orlando, Florida

 


Comments

Josh Kennedy
05/25/2010 6:17pm

Hi John, this is an interesting view. As an environmentalist and Wind and Solar Technician, consultant and journalist I find it preposterous. The only other presidents that rival Obama's drive for a greener future were Carter and Teddy Roosevelt. I am always amazed at articles that bash other peoples approach to a "Green Revolution" but never offer any of their own insights as to how to accomplish this. Given the mentality that a lot (most in my opinion) of Americans have today. It would be impossible for anyone to abolish coal/oil industries and let renewables take over... as much as I wish it would happen, I am often slapped in the face with reality that people will not let go of all of their cushy electrical luxeries. Besides have you evver seen anything Steven Chu has done (Obama nominated him) or noticed Salazar (again Obama) pushing the decision of Cape Wind in our favor? What exactly are you basing this on sir?

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05/26/2010 6:46pm

John,

Interesting perspective. There is a fundamental issue the President and Congress must contend with when developing an energy strategy: American's expect cheap power. It isn't simply a matter of corporations wanting higher profits (they do exist to make money you know!); it's that voters are unwilling to pay more for energy. Once elected, politicians want to remain in office as long as they can. Pursuing policies that would increase energy costs in the short-term, even if this were the best long-term strategy, would be political suicide.

Our entire way of life depends on cheap energy. Anything and everything we do is tied to the consumption of fossil fuels. We use fossil fuels when we’re asleep – what powers our alarm clocks or the heating and air conditioning that keeps us comfortable as we dream? We use fossil fuels when we’re in the bathroom – waste treatment plants don’t run on steam. The price of these fossil fuels is factored into the cost of the products and services we buy. I’ll wager those same "Green Revolutionaries" who are so willing to raise the price of oil and coal to account for the cost of pollution aren't willing to pay 20% - 30% more for food, clothing, and other necessities.

Though not always the case, innovation is usually driven by the free market, not government. If a new technology makes life easier or reduces costs somehow, it has a good chance of succeeding with American consumers. The Internet may have been invented by Al Gore, but it didn’t really take hold until the average person realized how much time and money getting online could save them. The same will be true for energy efficient technologies. As soon as people realize electric vehicles are inexpensive, reliable, and convenient, they’ll become more common. Until that happens, they won’t. For all of his political skill, President Obama can’t change human nature.

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Robert Clawson
05/26/2010 9:11pm

President Obama is indeed a politician and as such is not going to lead the charge in a direction that will cost his constituents more and have a major impact on their lifestyles. He is also smart enough to know that in order to reduce the US dependence on foreign oil the fastest and least expensive way to do so is to increase the efficiency of our use of oil, not to pump more of it. Drilling for more domestic oil is not a solution to the short term crisis that will be upon us as the global economy gets back into high gear and the price of all oil resumes its unrelenting climb. The increased fuel efficiency standards will have a much greater impact than the opening of new oil leases, and the president knows that.

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05/27/2010 10:35am

Very interesting points, but Mr. Obama is my hero for "gently" pushing for change, and the "Green Movement" in
America has to come from Americans,
American Companies, and activists
that can "Expose" Big Oil, and
demonstrate that "Wind" "EV",
and Good/Clean generators
of power, are cleaner/cheaper/better.
I've don't national print ads to
"Expose" Chevron/Unocal, and have
gone beyond what most people
would have done.
We have to lead the "Revolution
of Clean Green" Not the President.

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