Debate Questions on Energy for the Republican Candidates

Debate Questions on Energy for the Republican Candidates

With the last Republican presidential debate of the year scheduled for tonight, it’s a good time to review what the GOP hopefuls have told voters about energy so far and where they need to clarify their positions.

These candidates have generally agreed more than disagreed on energy. As a group, they favor a much smaller role for government, particularly when it comes to dealing with the threat of climate change.

Many candidates have carefully worded their statements about global warming and whether humans are responsible for it – trying to avoid charges they are anti-science, while avoiding any acknowledgment it’s a problem to deal with. The verbal gymnastics have provided a few awkward moments, particularly when Dr. Ben Carson confused the basic scientific distinction between climate and weather.

But surging Sen. Ted Cruz differentiated himself from the pack several days ago by telling National Public Radio, “The scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming,” and adding, “Climate change is the perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big government politician who wants more power.” The other candidates should be offered an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the Cruz position.

Whatever the parsing of the science, the critical distinction is whether candidates propose any actions to slow global warming. They vehemently oppose President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Program, with Sen. Marco Rubio claiming in the first CNN debate it would “destroy our economy.” A review of the candidates’ public statements does not provide evidence of substantive alternatives to the Obama plan. The candidates need to be pressed whether they do, in fact, have any alternatives to replace the EPA rule they despise.

So far, the candidates represent a sharp break from recent Republican presidents and presidential candidates on climate. Jeb Bush, for instance, is less in sync with the consensus on climate change than his presidential brother or his father who negotiated and signed the Rio agreement. We are far removed from the 2008 campaign, when Republican nominee John McCain was calling for a 60 percent cut in U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

On the multitude of energy issues other than climate, the candidates’ alarms about American leadership sometimes sound detached from current realities.

The first dire warning in the debates came with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plea for energy independence during the Fox News undercard session in August. “When it comes to fossil fuels, we’re going to find more here and use less,” he promised. “I am tired of sending $300 billion overseas to buy oil from people who hate our guts.”

Graham’s rhetoric was tame compared to now front-runner Donald Trump in a CNBC interview back in 2012. The then host of NBC’s “The Apprentice” blasted Obama for not making energy a major priority and claimed OPEC leaders were “sitting around their table, setting the price of oil and laughing at us because we have no leadership.”

These jeremiads would have been more compelling when U.S. net oil imports stood at 60 percent (2005-2006) rather than this year’s 25 percent. Oil prices have sharply retreated, and the fractured OPEC cartel has lost control of the market for its vital commodity, forcing members to slash budgets and sell off assets. It’s hard to imagine them laughing at us now.

Rubio, reports The New Yorker, tells crowds “I want to be the world leader in renewables, but we better also be the world leader in oil and natural gas.” The United States has long been the world leader in natural gas production and its margin over number two Russia is growing. After decades of decline, U.S. oil production has risen every year since 2008, and, by some measures, ranks number one in the world as well. Solar capacity more than quadrupled from 2009 to 2014, putting the U.S. fifth globally in photovoltaic capacity. The candidates should be challenged on why they are so pessimistic about what’s happening with domestic energy production and trends in energy independence.

Republicans contesting the nomination can marshal considerable expert opinion for their support of the Keystone pipeline (since pipelines transport oil more safely than trains) and for lifting the ban on export of crude oil (which would allow some market efficiencies). Both issues, however, are largely symbolic and have been overblown by both sides. Keystone’s existence wouldn’t fundamentally change the prospects for access to Canada’s oil, nor would it create the long-term jobs claimed by its proponents.

The United States already allows the export of refined oil and some crude. Allowing all crude exports wouldn’t change the likelihood that America will continue to need more oil than it produces. Still, the GOP can pressure the Democrats on these issues, particularly Sec. Hillary Clinton, whose State Department found little adverse effects on carbon emissions from the completion of Keystone.

Among top-polling candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz has offered the most specifics about diminishing the role of government in energy. He has strongly pushed for eliminating government support for ethanol – a risky position in corn-rich, first-in-the-nation-caucus Iowa. It would be good to see a good, substantive debate on ethanol between Cruz and Donald Trump (who is supporting ethanol).

Cruz has also revived the vintage Republican call for abolishing the Department of Energy (DOE). Unlike Gov. Rick Perry in 2012, Cruz has been able to remember the name of the Department, but he will run into a problem faced by President Ronald Reagan if the issue gets much scrutiny.

On taking office, Reagan’s effort to carry out his campaign pledge to abolish DOE fell flat. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had already begun to dismantle the regulatory apparatus constricting oil markets brought into the new department, and Reagan quickly got rid of the rest. Under the Energy Department, price controls and allocation went away, making it a less juicy target for conservatives.

But there was a bigger obstacle to reorganization. The bulk of the Department’s resources were devoted to the U.S. nuclear weapons programs, inherited from the Energy Research and Development Administration, which had inherited them in turn from the old Atomic Energy Commission. There was a long-time understanding that these functions should not be located in the Department of Defense.

In December of 1981, Reagan released his plan to send some of the Energy Department’s functions, such as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to the Department of Interior. He wanted to assign most responsibilities – ranging from energy statistics to atomic weapons – to the Department of Commerce. The administration had learned by this time there was simply no good place other than Energy to place atomic weapons, but had to make what turned out to be a perfunctory effort to abolish the Department to deliver on a campaign pledge.

As the current campaign progresses, more details on DOE’s proposed demise will be needed. For instance, is Cruz proposing shutting down all the Department’s functions – ranging from much of the nation’s basic science research to energy statistics to loan programs for new nuclear power plants to efficiency standards for appliances to the nuclear weapons stockpile? If he wants to abolish some and transfer others, what’s on each list? Abolishing departments saves no money; only eliminating specific functions will.

It’s critical to know what Cruz proposes to do with the nuclear weapons program in order to understand the national security implications of his plan. The Reagan recommendation of Commerce is not on the table, because Cruz wants to abolish that too. Are these weapons going to the Treasury Department? Justice? Agriculture?

Tonight’s debate can be one of many opportunities to examine more closely the substance behind the energy bumper stickers.

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