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.