James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Obama’s clean energy pivot goes awry

Jun 16, 2010 17:51 UTC

Imagine if your local fireman started lecturing you on fire safety and the need for more research into advanced flame-retardant materials while your house was engulfed in flames. (“Dude, shut up and save my dog!”)

I mean, maybe Barack Obama’s Oval Office address would have been an effective energy speech had the Gulf gusher already been capped. But the oil is still flowing. And until it stops, shifting from the BP spill to the broader White House energy agenda seems an awkward political and policy pivot. The whole thing had an air of unreality to it.

Obama tried to cleverly argue that the spill is less like a natural disaster than it is an epidemic. One does its damage in minutes, the other in months or years. So not only must America be patient, but it is also entirely appropriate to use the oily mess in the Gulf as a catalyst to quicken America’s long-term shift away from fossil fuels.

But an appeal to focus on the future sure seems like a hard sell to an American public watching damage estimates rise daily. A government panel announced the same day as Obama’s speech that it thinks as many as 60,000 barrels a day are flowing into the Gulf. That’s double last week’s projection and way above the original guess of 5,000.

But in his speech, Obama could offer no new hope for a quick end to the crisis, only plans for cleanup (including how BP will pay) and prevention — and a potential clean energy future. But the president’s green dreams may turn into a nightmare if Republicans smash the Democrats in the November congressional elections. And the spill is making such a rout ever more likely by slowly eroding the president’s popularity.

But Team Obama and his Democrat allies on Capitol Hill don’t see it that way. They believe the oil leak disaster has helped persuade voters that action is necessary even if it creates a short-term drag on the economy. And they are betting more Republicans will decide they can’t any longer merely oppose Democratic plans.

For his part, Obama says he wants to “aggressively accelerate” America’s shift away from fossil fuels through business subsidies, government R&D funding and carbon emissions pricing through a cap-and-trade system.

But is there any evidence any of this would actually work? Obama’s 2009 stimulus package increased funding for alternative energy research, and currently the government is spending about $5 billion a year on everything from renewables to smart grid technology. And a new group of business execs, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and GE’s Jeff Immelt, is pushing Washington to triple that level of funding. They point to such successful government R&D efforts as Internet and Human Genome Project.

But energy has been tricky for Uncle Sam. For instance, the 1970s energy crisis led to a federally funded synthetic fuels project beset by cost overruns and technical failures. (The 1980s collapse in oil prices didn’t help, either.) And a 2003 OECD study found that government-led R&D doesn’t seem to boost economic growth, or at least not in ways that can be easily measured by economists.

But first things first, Mr. President. The Pivot can wait.

COMMENT

What is needed are energy systems that are inexpensive, clean, and self contained, do not rely on fossil fuels and can be developed and maintained locally. You think I am dreaming I can feel that in my bones! Yet over the past (give or take ) hundred years or so, scientists, inventors and various curious people, have developed ideas and innovations, that would help us move totally away from our reliance on the presently accepted norms of oil, coal and gas – aka ‘fossil fuels’. Consider the work of Nikola Telsa and Stanley Meyer for starters!

If our governments are sincere in their attempt to reduce carbon emissions, and also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, then why have they hidden this information from us? It is known that they have had knowledge of most of these innovations and scientific discoveries for a very long time. How do you define ‘sincerity’? Or better still can you say ‘sincerity’ and ‘government’ in the one breathe? An oxymoron!

http://just-me-in-t.blogspot.com/2010/06  /define-sincerity.html

Posted by justmeint | Report as abusive

BP oil spill pollutes Obama energy speech

Jun 16, 2010 16:08 UTC

The United States needs a long-term change in its energy policy. Right now, it needs oil to stop gushing from the broken BP well into the Gulf of Mexico. Barack Obama tried to tie long and short together in his first Oval Office address. But the White House will struggle to get Americans to focus on the future as long as the spill continues.

The president certainly gave it his best shot. He argued that the BP  mess is more like a persistent epidemic than a one-time natural disaster. The moral of the analogy is two-fold. First, America must be patient in dealing with the oily mess in the Gulf. Second, the disaster should encourage a national shift away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

But for the American people, the future sure looks a long way away. A government panel announced the same day as Obama’s speech that as many as 60,000 barrels of oil are flowing into the Gulf every day. That’s double last week’s projection and way above the early estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

It is almost two months since the explosion which started the leak, but Obama could not offer a quick solution. There were only plans for cleanup, including harsh words on how BP will pay, and prevention — and a potential clean energy future.

The president’s green dreams may turn into a nightmare if Republicans smash the Democrats in November’s congressional elections. The spill, which is slowly eroding the president’s popularity, makes such a rout ever more likely.

Still, some polls suggest a national willingness to make economic sacrifices for the sake of kicking the oil addiction. And the first step need not be too expensive. A new study from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that one proposed energy bill, which includes a carbon emission trading scheme, would cost the average American household only about $100 a year.

So Americans might be amenable to the president’s long term message — after the crisis is over.

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