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Dems: Get real about U.S. energy policy

Posted: November 30, 2011 - 12:00am

Let me say upfront that I have always been a Democrat. However, I also vote my conscience and have supported independent candidates. Today, energy policy is one area where I think my party is wrong.

I wasn’t always a disillusioned Democrat. For decades, the party’s policies ensured that the United States had adequate supplies of domestic oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric power and uranium to fuel our growing economy while providing good-paying jobs to the men and women who produced our energy and transported it. These policies helped create America’s affluence of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

Even before then, it was a Democratic president — Franklin D. Roosevelt — who transformed the lives of many of our poorest citizens by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration. These projects brought electricity and industrialization to areas that lagged the rest of the country economically. It was President Lyndon B. Johnson and not a “free-market” Republican who transformed East Texas through electrification, setting off an economic boom responsible for the economic success of Texas to this day.

When the oil price shocks hit the United States in the 1970s, many Democratic stalwarts supported the Nixon and Ford administrations in their attempts to enact comprehensive energy policies. They understood that energy is not a partisan issue but rather one that draws people together to ensure the future health and security of the nation. Democratic senators, congressmen, governors and President Jimmy Carter supported myriad energy technologies, policies and projects, including nuclear power, conservation, renewable energy development, the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the lifting of oil and natural gas price controls.

While other Democratic voices sometimes argued that energy policy leaned too heavily toward conventional fuels and not enough toward conservation, fuel economy or efficiency standards, few party leaders opposed specific forms of energy or played to the galleries of anti-industry activists.

How far we have fallen from those days. Today’s Democratic leadership has reached a nadir in rational energy policymaking. In the last several years, congressional party leaders have squandered opportunities for a nuclear waste management storage program and have shown opposition to shale gas production. This month, the party reached a new low: The Obama administration’s delay of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, in spite of its promise of an additional 750,000 barrels of oil per day and the thousands of new jobs it would create, was an inexcusable political decision unbecoming of a pragmatic leader.

The former generation of Democratic legislators would have embraced the energy opportunities before the United States today. Whoever is president in 2013, it will be the first time in 40 years that the United States has a serious chance to transform its energy landscape. The previously accepted inexorable decline in U.S. oil and gas production is being reversed: New “tight oil” — resources trapped in low-porosity formations such as shale rock — could provide the country with several million barrels of oil per day in the coming decades, and the country’s abundant and accessible shale gas reserves may leave us gas independent for up to a century. There also are still conventional reserves to be tapped, most notably in Alaska, where the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the North Slope hold an abundance of hydrocarbon reserves.

Exploitation of these resources would have a number of benefits. Increased domestic oil production, coupled with growing imports of Canadian oil sands, would result in a reduction of non-North American oil imports, leading to a significant improvement in the country’s yawning trade deficit. Increased gas production would be valuable for cleaner electricity generation (when compared with coal) and could also signal a revival of the U.S. industrial and petrochemical sectors. Further, if natural gas can be deployed in the commercial heavy-duty vehicle fleet, we would be able to reduce our oil imports dramatically. We may even be able to export gas to our allies and trading partners.

This is neither a repetition nor a promotion of the Republican refrain to “drill baby, drill.”

This is also not a denial or marginalization of the environmental challenges we face. In the wake of the disastrous 2010 Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is clear that any energy production must be done to the highest environmental standards. That means spending more money and acquiring additional regulatory staff resources, not less (as the Republicans champion).

But we must embrace these challenges pragmatically and economically. We must move aggressively on energy efficiency, spread smart-grid technologies and invest in our electricity grid. We must push curbs that encourage less oil consumption, such as a targeted (to limit the effect on the less fortunate) federal gasoline tax.

I know many of my friends — Democratic and Republican — may dismiss my ideas as too far-reaching or as pie in the sky. But we need a vision now that all Americans accept and one they are ready to help make a reality. The Democratic leadership must start facing the hard truths about energy and stop proselytizing that renewable sources of energy can replace the fossil fuels currently in use. This is not to argue that the reduction of fossil fuel emissions is not an urgent priority. However, the emphasis must be on job creation and on building the 21st century energy infrastructure that will reestablish America’s primacy in the world. The size of our energy resources gives us the wherewithal to make this transition.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Give the American people the tools and they will finish the job.

• Ebinger is director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security Initiative.

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