The central energy challenge we face as a nation and a planet is the transition away from fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, to clean sources of energy. The most important debates in this area concern just how quickly this must be accomplished and how to do it in the cheapest way possible. Last week Mitt Romney’s campaign released its energy plan, which completely ignores all of this.
Instead, the plan focuses on the goal of North American energy independence by 2020 through expanded fossil fuel production. Unfortunately, as Michael Levi, an energy policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in a review of the plan for Foreign Policy, “achieving energy independence through expanded supplies is a pipe dream.” You can read his review to find out why. I want to focus on the plan’s dismissal of clean energy.
The Romney Plan’s Only Mention of Clean Energy
The only mention of clean energy comes in the plan’s Innovation section, where it states support for basic research into new energy technologies, and notes that expanded development should apply equally to all sources. There’s no way to read this as anything except a commitment to drastically scale back existing clean energy programs like tax credits, applied research, and funding for commercialization. The terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are totally absent.
Boston’s Cleantech Community on the Plan
I emailed a number of Boston’s most astute cleantech analysts and businesspeople for comment on the plan and what I heard was (unsurprisingly) overwhelmingly negative.
“It’s a political document not worth serious analysis,” said Mitch Tyson, a serial cleantech entrepreneur and a lecturer at Brandeis.
As Bilal Zuberi, cleantech VC at General Catalyst, put it:
I wish Mitt Romney understood the need for a true long term energy strategy for the US. Instead he is delivering where he sees money in the short term, i.e. continued focus on same old oil and gas sectors that have made us pawns in the hands of foreign governments.
I expected a Presidential candidate to understand he will be responsible for making decisions that would affect multiple generations. I don’t see how his energy policy at all link to the steady and growing concern across America for environmental pollution, global warming, and sustainable development.
Marcie Black of Bandgap Engineering pointed out another sin of omission: though it calls out clean energy subsidies, the document makes no mention of U.S. fossil fuel subsidies which are on the order of $10 billion per year.
Jim Cabot, SVP at Rasky Baerlein and a former EPA official, took issue with the plan’s nod towards resolving energy permitting issues. “Over the years I have found that blaming permitting is often a red herring for other more substantive problems,” he wrote. “Oh, and the approach of ‘I’ll just roll the dice with the future of the planet by rapidly accelerating carbon emissions’ gives me pause too.”
Romney Used to Appreciate Clean Energy, At Least a Little
Romney’s record on energy issues as governor of Massachusetts was mixed. He helped set up the Green Energy Fund, seeding it with $15 million from which to make cleantech investments. The Fund turned into MassCEC’s investment arm, which has done good work. On the other hand, he backed out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program for Northeast states.
His position on global warming has been consistently hard to pin down. In 2004, as he unveiled a climate plan for Massachusetts, he made the following hedge:
If climate change is happening, the actions we take will help. If climate change is largely caused by human action, this will really help. If we learn decades from now that climate change isn’t happening, these actions will still help our economy, our quality of life, and the quality of our environment.
Nearly a decade later, the evidence suggests climate change is even worse than we thought. It’d be nice if Romney would admit this. But despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue, that won’t happen because of the delusions of the Republican base. Worse still, it’s no longer enough to just avoid taking a stance on climate change. That’s so 2004. Today, in our post-Solyndra world, you have to avoid supporting clean energy altogether.
The Media Covered What Was In the Plan, Not What Was Left Out
One of the most frustrating parts of Romney’s energy plan is that it actually succeeded in changing the conversation. The media knew they had to cover it, and so they covered what was in it. And so much of the press focus was squarely on the details around fossil fuel development, rather than its complete dismissal of cleantech.
The Debate We Should Be Having
The unfortunate thing about all of this is that we could be having a legitimate debate about clean energy policy. I know a lot of really smart people who favor clean energy policies like feed-in tariffs, deployment tax credits, funding for commercialization programs, loan guarantees or other government-backed financing mechanisms for scale-up, and more.
But if team Romney came out in favor of a low carbon price or federal electricity standard plus a significant increase in basic and applied energy research but against certain other policies that’d at least be a legitimate debate we could have.
Energy issues are complicated, as is climate change. Conservatives have a lot to add to the discussion with their appreciation for market forces and for the unforeseen consequences of government intervention. But with Romney as their candidate, they’re passing on the opportunity.
As Levi put it in the aforementioned review:
Reasonable people can differ on how much emphasis to place on climate change in U.S. energy policy, but it isn’t reasonable to ignore it entirely.
But we’re weeks away from a presidential election, so unreasonable is all we get.