Remaining Energy Questions for the Democratic Presidential Candidates

Remaining Energy Questions  for the Democratic Presidential Candidates
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Overshadowed by a national focus on ISIS and terrorism, energy issues seem to be getting short shrift so far in the presidential debates – including Saturday night’s Democratic faceoff on ABC. But the interrelationship of oil and Middle Eastern politics, the challenges of climate change, and the vital role that energy plays in our economy suggests that at some point the aspirants for the White House will have to confront energy issues in greater detail.

The Democratic candidates support the broadly accepted science of climate change, which dampens the interest of moderators in the topic. Agreements among candidates don’t often lead to audience-fixated debates. The Republican Party’s eventual nominee, however, will likely have expressed doubts about climate change science, making the subject potentially a defining factor in the general election. But that battle won’t be joined until the fall of 2016.

Less examined, however, the Democratic hopefuls do have sharp differences over the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a split with important implications for the overall direction of the Democratic Party and the nation’s energy strategy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of two bold pieces of legislation to reduce carbon emissions (not discussed during the last debate) could differentiate him from the clear front-runner, Sec. Hillary Clinton, and generate the need for more questioning than we’ve seen so far. One would phase in a tax on carbon to reach the goals for 2050 limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit); the other would prohibit new mining of fossil fuels on federal lands.

The idea of taxing carbon has a varied cast of supporters – ranging from Exxon, to conservative economists favoring consumption taxes as market incentives, to climate change activists seeking tougher measures.

The Sanders tax proposal is historically significant in that energy taxes can be popular with economists and former officials (who have little actual influence) and almost never with current officials (who have to face voters). Sander’s past sensitivity to the regressive nature of energy prices also makes his voice on this issue significant.

Until the Senator from Vermont gets a long list of co-sponsors for the tax bill, this may be a debate for another day, however. A carbon tax attracts as many advocates among Republican as Democratic policy wonks (though the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation pounced almost immediately to denounce the Sanders bill), and it will be difficult in the short term to establish much support on either side of the aisle. The next question for Sanders is how he would attract other officeholders to his proposal.

The more pertinent issue for now concerns energy mining on federal lands, which currently supplies roughly a quarter of total U.S. production of fossil fuels. Banning new development of federal lands has the support of influential Senators, such as Barbara Boxer and Elizabeth Warren, as well as the environmental movement “Leave It in the Ground,” which helped torpedo the Keystone pipeline.

That considerable amounts of fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground is supported by a careful analysis of climate history. The major question on the table, though, is whether it does much good to chop domestic production of (in particular) oil, which can be imported from other countries, as opposed to a focus on reducing demand or substituting cleaner fuels.

Recently, production of fossil fuels on federal lands have yielded over $10 billions per year in federal revenue, mostly from offshore oil drilling. The U.S. Treasury retains over half the money, and major chunks also go to coastal states, the Reclamation Fund, and the Land & Water Conservation Fund. Sanders and other bill sponsors need to be queried on how they would replace these funds.

They should also explain how it benefits the United States or climate protection to displace domestic oil with foreign imports. Phasing out U.S. production would cost jobs and make us more dependent on OPEC oil. It would send more money to countries where terrorist groups obtain their funding. When foreign oil replaces domestic oil, it is hard to argue much good is being done for the climate, especially since it is easier for the United States to control the leakage and flaring of methane (also a greenhouse gas) than it is for, say, Nigeria.

Some long-time activists in the environmental movement still have trouble adjusting to the reality that carbon and methane are global pollutants, unlike the local and regional challenges they have faced. There are plenty of good reasons to carefully regulate offshore oil production – such as threats to lives of workers, to the environment (e.g., marine life), or to commercial activities (especially tourism). The logic for slowing climate change is less convincing.

Moreover, banning fossil fuel production on federal lands feeds a narrative of the climate skeptics that dealing with climate will be economically ruinous. Programs that produce symbolic rather than substantive results will raise the costs of reducing emissions, but there are plenty of programs, many being implemented by President Obama, that provide good value for the dollar and a firmer foundation for the sustained effort that is needed.

So, the next question for Sanders is: “If carbon is a global pollutant and oil investments not made in the United States will likely be shifted to increase production elsewhere (demand being equal), why do you think a ban on U.S. offshore drilling would help the climate?”

Clinton, so far, has pledged to protect and expand the initiatives of the current administration (although she has gone further than the President by joining calls for a ban on drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska). This may not be enough to excite the hearts of some environmentalists. But there is a lot of room for progress in this arena, until attitudes in Congress change and bolder steps are possible. She has John Podesta – a behind-the-scenes hero of the Obama agenda to reduce U.S. emissions and garner increased international cooperation – at her side.

A question for Clinton is: “Will you agree to the demands of environmentalists (and now Sanders) that would make the country more dependent on foreign oil?”

As I suggested in a review of the Republican candidates before their last debate of 2015, words that sound compelling on a bumper sticker may not always stand up under close scrutiny. Energy policies involve many intricate balances, but good ones can meet the needs of national security, economic prosperity, and strong environmental protection.

 

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