Presidential Wannabes Wimp-Out on Energy

Presidential Wannabes Wimp-Out on Energy

Contentious presidential debates on energy lie ahead. This fall’s general election will present a stark contrast between two parties divided on how the nation should deal with challenges like climate change and energy independence.

At this point, however, the candidates on both sides have demonstrated a notable lack of leadership on energy issues.

As allegiances to both party parties decline, presidential candidates during the primary season have to appeal to smaller shares of the American electorate more likely to adhere to extreme views that clash with expert opinion. Incentives to pander have grown, and candidates have caved in too easily to voters poorly informed on energy matters.

The Achilles heels for the Republicans have been the denial of the seriousness of climate change and the conviction that government cannot play a constructive role in protecting the environment while moving to more benign sources of energy.

The leading GOP candidates cannot find any programs to slow down climate change that are worth the effort. Their stance thumbs its nose at science in a way unprecedented in modern American politics. It does not take a PhD to understand that the burning of fossil fuels is adding to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, these accumulations are warming the planet, and the earth has an atmosphere uniquely (based on our current knowledge of the universe) conducive to human civilization, as we know it.

Ted Cruz wants to abolish the Department of Energy, despite its important role in developing advanced technologies that have helped put the United States in a leadership position on energy, both green and traditional. Pressed by Megyn Kelly in last week’s Fox News debate, Donald Trump opined on the Environmental Protection Agency, promising, “We are going to get rid of it in almost every form.” He presented no alternative for protecting impressive U.S. gains in clean water and clean air or for reducing concentrations of mercury that are dangerous to human health or greenhouse gases that are damaging the atmosphere.

Marco Rubio speaks eloquently about the sacrifices his immigrant parents made to give him a better life in America but seems aghast that the current generation might make any sacrifice to protect the environment for our children and grandchildren. He dismisses the Clean Power Plan with the unsubstantiated charge it will wreck the economy.

On the whole, the Republicans seem to be appealing to a vocal base in their party that is anti-government and anti-science, and no one has the courage to take on energy issues vital to America’s future. One obvious casualty will be the global effort to combat climate change, but the fallout of abandoning the work being done at the Energy Department, for instance, has grave ramifications well beyond that.

To their credit, the Democrats have conducted debates from which children do not have to be excluded and accepted the scientific consensus on climate change – both welcome in this weirdest of election years.* However, they are surrendering the leadership on energy and the environment to single-issue activists intent on achieving symbolic victories rather than maximum reductions in carbon emissions (broadly defined to include other greenhouse gases) at least cost.

Fracking – along with horizontal drilling and advanced seismology – has produced an oil and gas boom in the United States, with several clear benefits to the country. Cheap natural gas has enabled a rapid move away from electricity generated from coal, the most dangerous of the fossil fuels, thus helping meet the targets of the Clean Power Plan. Fracked oil has played the major role in limiting dependence on imports from the Middle East, improving national security, and reducing the trade deficit. The fracking boom has generated plenty of jobs – less now with the fall in oil prices, but helping a lot as the nation was pulling out of a recession.

Bernie Sanders has consistently opposed all fracking, making him a foe of almost all domestic oil drilling, whether onshore or offshore. (He has sponsored, for instance, a bill to end new lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico.) Big oil and gas companies seem to feel they should be able to drill everywhere. Sen. Sanders seems to believe they should drill nowhere.

Until, recently Hillary Clinton’s views on fracking have been more nuanced. In a Sunday response to a student from the University of Michigan at Dearborn, she reiterated her position in favor of stricter regulation of fracking – a largely reasonable stance given the large amounts of methane that have been allowed to escape in some states and the increase in Oklahoma earthquakes apparently due to sloppy reinjection practices. But then in the excitement of the moment, she crossed a line.

“So by the time we get through all of my conditions,” she continued with an air of celebration. ”I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.” It is one thing to say we may need to slow down fracking a bit to avoid trampling on the environment. It is another to ignore the contributions that fracking has made to reduced coal use, the economy, and national security.

Foreign oil can easily displace U.S. supplies if fracking is discouraged, so climate change efforts should focus on reducing demand for petroleum products. That would in involve increasingly efficient vehicles, including electric, and driving fewer miles. This approach would involve some adjustments to avoid the waste of energy rampant in the American life style. We want our presidents to save us, but we are all part of the problem and the solution.

This year’s crop of candidates would be well served to remember the voter discontent in the spring of 2008 and how the candidates then responded to it. People were upset with an economic crisis and surging gasoline prices. Senator John McCain – the likely GOP presidential nominee – and then Sen. Clinton called for suspending the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon during the summer driving season. But then Sen. Barrack Obama, still contending with Clinton for the Democratic nod, spoke out firmly against the proposal, resisting public pressure and recognizing that prices help rebalance markets. The candidate most resistant to pandering on energy ended up getting the big prize.

One can hardly blame politicians for treating voters concerns with respect. At the end of the day, however, the office of the president requires leadership. On energy issues so far, the presidential candidates are acting like wimps, giving in to the pressures of the moment without accounting for long-term impacts.

The news media and the public need to assume some responsibility for the circumstances in which victories with quick applause lines (sometimes not based on reality) determine who “wins” debates. We need to give candidates who are working very hard to take on a tough job more than a minute to answer complex questions and then hope they will use the time to give us thoughtful responses that demonstrate genuine leadership.

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