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Searching for a silver bullet; never firing the gun.

29 Jan

Maybe I’m cynical, but while I was heartened to learn that President Obama highlighted domestic natural gas in his State of the Union address, his campaign to promote an “All of the Above” strategy with the tag line, “Built to last,” appears eerily reminiscent of the last thirty years of Presidential initiatives to address our energy situation.

Presidents and their staffers are very good at crafting an image or brand around their energy policy. Jimmy Carter had his cardigan sweater. George W. Bush lamented our, “addiction to oil.”  Mr. Obama, until last week, was the “green” President: green economy, green jobs, green investments…until they turned red. Now, he is for “all the above” under a “blueprint for an economy that’s built to last.” (I guess speaking in automotive slogans is an aftereffect of the GM bailout.)

Unfortunately, it’s clear that we still lack a rational energy policy, just as we have over the past three decades. To be fair, energy is not a simple issue. It has implications throughout our daily lives, business and the economy, the environment, and national security. Compounding this complexity, energy is by definition, remarkably political in nature. On one side sit the pro energy interests (“drill baby drill”), on the other, the green movement fervently convinced energy is causing worldwide destruction. The majority in middle simply want a stable job and a decent living along with gasoline prices that don’t necessitate a second mortgage.

So what’s a politician do when he has to maneuver between such a political Scylla and Charybdis?  First, deflect the issue by identifying an expedient target. Be certain to be seen standing up for your constituents and publicly denounce the bad guy (think CEO’s of energy companies).  Next look for a silver bullet, no matter how ineffective, to calm fears and give the impression that you’re solving the problem. Finally, coin a catchy slogan so people will remember you in the voting booth.

The public flogging of energy company CEO’s feels good, but that’s been done so often recently that it’s loosing populist appeal. Silver bullets rise and fall faster than GOP presidential contenders. Ethanol, first and second generation cellulosic biofuel, algae derived bio-diesel, electric battery vehicles. Each an interesting concept, but none even remotely capable of addressing our challenges.  Silver bullets are attractive, but notorious for misfiring.

All this leads me to wonder, ” Will be ever get to actually fire the gun?” Why aren’t we defining our energy strategy by means of a classical engineering or business decision model, just as we did to develop the existing pipelines and utilities, our electric transmission grid, and cellular phone and internet access?  That is, let  government lay out the problem, clearly define the rules, and identify the objectives.

Our national energy policy should be defined in three broad parameters. It must lead to plentiful, affordable, reliable energy. Do so in compliance  with all applicable regulations, codes, and standards to protect our health, safety, security, and environment. Continue to support basic research that will lead to new applications, but don’t allow government to play venture capitalist and attempt to pick winners and losers.

Let’s stop trying to identify the silver bullet. Unleash the power of industry and this country’s innate  entrepreneurial spirit to generate multiple options. Test them and let them compete and in the marketplace. The choice of options that best meets our objectives will soon be clear.

A national energy strategy that guides the development of a bandolier of bullets–oil, natural gas, clean coal, nuclear, renewables, efficiency, etc.–will support a gun capable of firing well placed rounds that actually hit the target.

Really, Mr. President?

25 Jan

Last night, I participated in an annual civic duty activity–watching the State of the Union address. It’s not that I’m a political junky or even remotely subscribe to more than a handful of the President’s political views. Neither did I tune into the talking heads segments after the speech to listen to erudite analysis of each measured phrase or opinions about which member of Congress or Judiciary clapped with the most enthusiasm.  However, as an American, I believe it’s important to spend an hour or so each year listening to what the country’s chief executive has to say, especially when the country faces so many daunting issues.

On the surface, it was a well-delivered address.  I expected nothing less from President Obama. If for no other reason, you have to admire his ability to deliver a prepared speech as well as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, sans a bit of empathy. But as state of the union speeches go, other than it may well be Mr. Obama’s last, depending upon what happens this November, it wasn’t particularly memorable.

Ostensibly, it’s the sitting President’s opportunity to showcase leadership, providing an honest assessment of the nation’s state of affairs, and setting forth his vision and plans for the upcoming year. Budget to follow. Unfortunately, most are too long, short on specifics, and colored by the political agenda of the President’s party.

Of course, I was most keenly interested in what he had to say about energy. Not only is energy my vocation, it’s a common thread running through many of the challenges our country faces today. Energy is a fundamental aspect of any society.

We need it to cook, keep warm, and provide the security of light at night. It allows us to achieve incredible mobility.  It’s also the cornerstone of every developed society’s economy. Yet for all it’s importance, energy is ignored, taken for granted, treated with contempt, held in awe, sought out, used with impunity, politicized, and misunderstood more than any national issue.

After the speech, I couldn’t help but think that President Obama had once again added credence to Jon Stewart’s, “An Energy Independent Future” skit. If you aren’t familiar with the segment, watch it and you’ll agree. Sadly, it would be hysterically funny were it not so true.

President Obama spoke in grand terms about doubling down on domestic sources of energy, especially natural gas from shale. Opening more federal lands for drilling and embracing an, “All of the Above” approach to energy. Really, Mr. President?

What does ‘All of the Above” mean to you? You talked about encouraging responsible fracking to produce new gas supplies, but what about oil? In your 2008 campaign, you said you wanted to promote clean coal technologies, but nearly four years later, coal is a pariah within your administration. The same goes for nuclear energy which was seemly ignored well before Fukushima once again raised the level of nuclear anxiety. Finally, as we downsize the military, where is the money going to come from in the budget for constructing and paying the premium utility bills for those renewable energy sources on base?

Just one week after your administration rejected the Keystone oil pipeline, saying that you now embrace, “All of the Above,” stretches the limits of credulity. Politics once again reigns supreme over any prospects for a rational debate on a long-term energy strategy this year. My sincere hope is that Jon Stewart doesn’t need to add a ninth President to his skit next year.