A Pragmatic Approach to Energy Policy: The President’s Job Council Report

  • photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Natural Resources www.flickr.com/photos/35433815@N08/5054964467
    Jan 18, 2012

    Yesterday, the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness released a report, “Road Map to Renewal,” on a variety of ways to boost jobs and competitiveness in the United States. For anyone living outside the beltway, the energy portion of the report probably sounds boringly commonsensical. According to the report, the Council recommends an “all-in approach” to U.S. energy policy—a familiar refrain that has been around for some time (also known as the “all-of-the-above” approach)—and suggests that all energy sources including oil, natural gas, coal, renewables, nuclear, and efficiency will be necessary to meet the energy needs of a growing and developing global economy. The council recommends that the goal of our energy policy should be to achieve “energy resilience and diversity”—a far different message than striving for low-carbon pathways or energy independence, which are more commonly touted during election season. The report also has three key recommendations:

    1. Optimize use of all of our natural resources while protecting public health and the environment;
    2. Support efficiency measures in electricity and transportation;
    3. Drive energy innovation and investment from basic invention to industry scale-up.

    Again, these are not earth-shattering proposals, and that is precisely what makes them so refreshing. They are smart, pragmatic, and concrete things that we can and should do if we could only find a way to build consensus on moving forward. For some reason, energy has become such a political football that we have been unable to move forward on things that just make good sense.
    For example, the report recognizes that the United States has long been blessed with abundant natural resources and has recently realized a new era in abundance with regard to unconventional oil and natural gas. While others have touted these newfound resources as the origins of the United States’ eventual energy independence, the Council appropriately characterizes them as an important resource in a basket of energy resources that should be developed to contribute to our overall level of resilience, but done so in a way that protects public health and the environment.

    Instead of launching into a complex discussion of the relative virtue of government subsidies, the report recognizes that innovation has always been important to U.S. competitiveness and that investments in energy technology and infrastructure today are a down payment on future growth. Finally, the report also recognizes that increased efficiency in the electricity and transport sectors is something we can and should invest in today, because greater efficiency is one area where all of our interests are aligned.

    There are, of course, a number of things that go unsaid in this document that get at the heart of the current impasse on U.S. energy policy; namely, the argument about whether or not the United States will pursue a low-carbon pathway in line with what is required by the international community to keep global warming to “safe” levels. Many people who support more aggressive action to ward off the most damaging effects of global warming will look at this document and think it is entirely beside the point, if not anti-climate change, because it says nothing about ways to expedite the transition to a low-carbon future outside the need to invest in renewable energy resources and technology development. It also says very little about the need to reduce dependence on oil from a particular part of the world for security or foreign policy reasons—a theme that is extremely important to the energy security hawks around town. In this way, the Council’s recommendations miss the mark for some of the most vocal constituents on energy policy in our public discourse. But that’s OK. The back and forth on these two issues in particular has become so detached from pragmatic and sensible paths forward that they are virtual nonstarters in any reasonable policy debate—needlessly so, mind you, as both issues could be dealt with in a rational way if level heads were to prevail. For example, most people have recognized that, though a transition to a low-carbon energy future is on our interest, there are no near-term scalable replacements for the systems we have and that a transition will take decades. That being said, a low-carbon transition is not likely to take place if we’re not investing in deploying and developing low-carbon technologies (many of which do exist today). On the energy independence side, most reasonable people recognize that energy independence is not only implausible but also not desirable on some level. This does not preclude us from doing smart things to produce our own resources, diversify suppliers and sources, and increase efficiency—all of which make us more resilient or secure.

    There are two refreshing things about the report released yesterday. One is that it avoids the divisive rhetoric that has come to symbolize the frontline of energy debates in this town—witness the debate on the Keystone XL pipeline, climate change science, non-greenhouse gas emissions from a variety of industrial sources, or unconventional oil and gas development. It has been hard of late to find evidence of sound reasoning or a desire to chart a plausible path forward in any of these debates. The report also avoids attaching any jobs numbers to initiatives that are designed to create jobs and increase competitiveness, which is a wonderful thing since most of the jobs numbers bandied about these days are virtually worthless.

    The report and its recommendations are not terribly specific and don’t answer all of the hard questions (both substantive and political), of course. Yesterday, White House press secretary Jay Carney stated that the administration supports this “all-in” or “all-of-the-above” approach, has already expanded domestic oil and gas production, and “will continue to pursue this all-of-the-above approach because it’s the right thing for the United States, it’s the right thing for our national security and it’s the right thing for our economic security.” Republicans were also quick to endorse the report’s all-in approach and chastise the administration for not following its own Job Council’s recommendations—especially with regard to the Keystone XL pipeline and domestic oil and gas production.

    So it’s clear that the report successfully hits a middle ground tone that both sides can agree on at this vague level of specificity, but the devil is in the interpretation of the details and implementation. The report and its recommendations probably won’t lead to any dramatic breakthrough in our current debate on energy policy. But it’s nice to see that even in an election year it’s possible for someone to propose something that approximates a pragmatic and balanced path forward.

    Sarah O. Ladislaw is a senior fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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