Why Is Congress Lethargic about Energy?

by Marlo Lewis on April 24, 2013

in Blog, Features

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This week National Journal’s Energy Experts Blog poses the question: “What’s holding back energy & climate policy.” So far 14 wonks have posted comments including yours truly. What I propose to do here is ‘revise and extend my remarks’ to provide a clearer, more complete explanation of Capitol Hill’s energy lethargy.

To summarize my conclusions in advance, there is no momentum building for the kind of comprehensive energy legislation Congress enacted in 2005 and 2007, or the major energy bills the House passed in 2011, because:

  • We are not in a presidential election year so Republicans have less to gain from passing pro-energy legislation just to frame issues and clarify policy differences for the electorate;
  • Divided government makes it virtually impossible either for congressional Republicans to halt and reverse the Obama administration’s regulatory war on fossil fuels or for Hill Democrats to pass cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, or a national clean energy standard;
  • Democrats paid a political price for cap-and-trade and won’t champion carbon taxes without Republicans agreeing to commit political suicide by granting them bipartisan cover;
  • The national security and climate change rationales for anti-fossil fuel policies were always weak but have become increasingly implausible thanks to North America’s resurgence as an oil and gas producing province, Climategate, and developments in climate science;
  • Multiple policy failures in Europe and the U.S. have eroded public and policymaker support for ‘green’ energy schemes;
  • It has become increasingly evident that the Kyoto crusade was a foredoomed attempt to put policy carts before technology horses; and,
  • The EPA is ‘enacting’ climate policy via administrative fiat, so environmental campaigners no longer need legislation to advance their agenda.

Divided Government, Messaging Bills, Cap-and-Trade Casualties

Divided government can produce gridlock, yet the latter need not induce legislative torpor. In the 112th Congress, the House passed several energy- or climate-related bills drafted by the Energy and Commerce Committee. Those include the Energy Tax Prevention Act (H.R. 910), Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act (H.R. 1633), North American-Made Energy Security Act (H.R. 1938), Jobs and Energy Permitting Act (H.R. 2250), Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2273), Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act (H.R. 2401), Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act (H.R. 2681), Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act (H.R. 2937), Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act (H.R. 4273), Domestic Energy and Jobs Act (H.R. 4480), American Manufacturing Competitiveness Act (H.R. 5865), Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (H.R. 5892), and No More Solyndras Act (H.R. 6213). All died in the Senate.

This flurry of legislative activity can in part be explained by the political dynamics of the 2012 presidential election cycle. By holding hearings on and passing those bills, Republicans sought to frame the issues and clarify policy differences for the electorate. A central objective was to focus public attention on which party supports and which opposes creating jobs through domestic energy production. House Republicans may launch another ambitious energy offensive as we get closer to the 2014 mid-term elections and/or the 2016 presidential contest, but not likely before then.

Why though is there is no momentum on the other side of the aisle for the “comprehensive energy and climate legislation” once proudly championed by the Obama administration and environmental activists?

Starting with the most obvious reasons, 29 Democrats who voted for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in June 2009 got pink slips from their constituents in November 2010. Key to defeating Waxman-Markey was its exposure as a stealth energy tax (“cap-n-tax”). This prompted a search for “other ways to skin the cat,” as President Obama put it, but finding other ways to fool the public was not easy.

With few options to pick from, some climate activists now advocate carbon taxes. But why should the public support an open, unvarnished energy tax when what doomed cap-and-trade was its outing as a sneaky energy tax? Cap-and-trade was in part an attempt to avoid a repeat of the political losses Democrats sustained in 1994 because of Al Gore’s Btu energy tax legislation in 1993. Most Democrats in Congress are reluctant to tax carbon unless the GOP gives them bipartisan cover, but most Republicans realize that if they cave on carbon taxes, they will demoralize and divide their base.

Even aside from partisan calculations, few members of Congress want to take responsibility for raising energy prices during a period of high unemployment and anemic economic growth.

Obsolescent Worldviews

Probing a bit deeper, we find that once-fashionable alarms about climate change and foreign oil dependence no longer have the intellectual cachet they did a few years ago. The period from 2005 through 2007 was not only a high watermark of U.S. oil import dependence, it was also a time when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the Bali Road Map, and the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) set the terms of national debate on climate change. A lot has happened since then.

Washington’s angst about oil embargoes, supply disruptions, and the link between Mideast oil and terror was always overblown, as Cato Institute scholars Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren explain:

  • Because oil is a globally-traded commodity, the U.S. can circumvent any likely embargo by purchasing oil via third parties. Indeed, U.S. oil imports actually increased after the 1973 Arab oil embargo – from 3.2 million barrels per day in 1973 to 3.5 mbd in 1974.
  • Petro-states have more to lose from catastrophic disruptions than do their customers, which is why there hasn’t been one since the Iranian Revolution.
  • There is no correlation between OPEC profits and cross-border incidents of Islamic terror. The likely explanation is that terrorist attacks are low-budget operations (the 911 plotters spent less than half a million dollars) and therefore are not much affected by changes in oil prices or petro-state revenues.

In recent years, the national security rationale for regulating America ‘beyond petroleum’ has become increasingly implausible, as advances in unconventional oil and gas production transform North America into a major producing region. Imports as a share of U.S. petroleum consumption declined from 60% in 2005 to 45% in 2011. More than half of those imports came from the Western hemisphere, and Canada’s share was more than double that of Saudi Arabia. In both 2011 and 2012, petroleum products were the top U.S. exports. Some experts now view hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling as a source of U.S. geopolitical influence, arguing for example that the ‘shale revolution’ undermines Russia’s leverage over Europe.

A March 2012 Citi report concluded: “With no signs of this growth trend ending over the next decade, the growing continental surplus of hydrocarbons points to North America effectively becoming the new Middle East by the next decade; a growing hydrocarbon net exporting center.” Analyses by Citi, Wood McKenzie, and IHS Global Insight support the assessment of Manhattan Institute scholar Mark Mills that “unleashing the North American energy colossus” could create millions of new jobs by 2020 and provide hundreds of billions in cumulative new federal, state, and local tax revenues.

In short, a bright future for hydrocarbon energy now competes in the public mind with yesteryear’s gloomy forecasts of increasing oil depletion and dependency.

As for climate alarm, the Climategate emails exposed some of the world’s most prestigious climatologists as schemers using the pretense of scientific objectivity for political purposes. This blow to their credibility also tarnished the UN-sponsored climate treaty negotiations.

Also deflating the push for coercive energy transformation is the lack of any net global warming over the past 16 years. There are competing explanations, but a plausible hypothesis, based on recent studies ably summarized by Cato Institute climatologist Chip Knappenberger, is that Earth’s climate is less sensitive to greenhouse forcing than “consensus” science had assumed. What cannot be denied is that there is a disconnect between the IPCC’s best estimate of projected warming and observations over the past decade.

In addition, numerous studies (summarized here and here) undercut the credibility of scary climate change impact forecasts. A few examples:

  • King et al. (2012): The rate of Antarctic ice loss is not accelerating and translates to less than one inch of sea-level rise per century.
  • Weinkle et al. (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of land-falling hurricanes in the world’s five main hurricane basins during the past 50-70 years.
  • Chenoweth and Divine (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of tropical cyclones in the main Atlantic hurricane development corridor over the past 370 years.
  • Bouwer (2011): There is no trend in hurricane-related damages since 1900 once economic loss data are adjusted for changes in population, wealth, and the consumer price index.
  • NOAA: There is no trend since 1950 in the frequency of strong (F3-F5) U.S. tornadoes.
  • National Climate Data Center: There is no trend since 1900 in U.S. soil moisture as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index.
  • Hirsch and Ryberg (2011): There is no trend in U.S. flood magnitudes over the past 85 years.
  • Davis et al. (2003): As U.S. urban air temperatures have increased, heat-related mortality has declined.
  • Goklany (2010): Global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather have declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since the 1920s.
  • Range et al. (2012): There is no evidence of carbon dioxide-related mortalities of juvenile or adult mussels “even under conditions that far exceed the worst-case scenarios for future ocean acidification.”

Skeptical blogs continually disseminate such findings to policymakers and the public.

During last year’s summer drought, NASA scientist James Hansen made a big splash with a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a Washington Post op-ed arguing that global warming was the cause of the four biggest hot spells of the past 10 years. However, as noted in skeptical blogs, meteorological analyses of the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010, the Texas-Oklahoma drought of 2011, and the Midwest drought of 2012 attribute those events principally to natural variability.

Policy Failures

Last week the European Parliament refused to stop the EU carbon market from crashing. This debacle, a setback to all who tout Europe as a model for U.S. climate and energy policy, was all but inevitable.

For months EU policymakers had been groping for the carbon price sweet spot. Were carbon prices too low or too high? The answer: both! Prices were criticized by environmental activists as too low to incentivize hoped-for technology innovation but criticized by industry as too high for Europe to stay competitive in the global marketplace. EU governments had to establish a “carbon compensation fund” to keep domestic manufacturers from off-shoring their operations. European manufacturers still would not support intervention to prop up falling carbon prices. So the EU Parliament decided to just let carbon prices crater, embracing in deed if not in speech the carbon policy advocated by G.W. Bush. Ha!

Fiscal realities have also forced EU governments to scale back green energy subsidies. USA Today reported last month: “European governments have now realized this growth – which saw consumers footing the bill for investors’ soaring profit margins – was out of control: The UK and Czech Republic have already cut their subsidies in half, while Italy imposed a cap on new renewable energy providers. Germany cut subsidies by up to 30% and announced a major overhaul of the program Thursday.” In this respect, too, Europe has become a model of what U.S. policymakers should avoid.

The Obama administration, predictably, has decided to double down on renewables. The President’s Budget proposes to make the controversial renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) “permanent.” That, however, is a tacit confession wind and solar will never stand on their own feet without subsidy, despite the wind industry telling us for years that it is on the verge of becoming competitive with coal and gas. With the nation $16.8 trillion in debt, the President’s $23 billion PTC initiative is likely D.O.A. in the House.

The growing list of Stimu-Losers also undermines congressional support for green venture socialism. Besides Solyndra, failed or troubled recipients of DOE loans or guarantees include Beacon Power, Evergreen Solar, Range Fuels, Amonix, A123 Systems, Nevada Geothermal Power, Abound Solar, and, recently in the news, Fisker Automotive. According to a Privco report, Fisker lost over $1.3 billion in private and taxpayer capital, spending $660,000 for each $103,000 electric vehicle it produced before firing three-quarters of its employees.

Lawmakers from both parties have even begun to reconsider and challenge the once popular Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program. This 15-year central plan increases consumers’ pain at the pump, expands aquatic dead zones, makes food less affordable to the world’s poorest people, plows up millions of acres of wildlife habitat, and puts at least as much carbon in the atmosphere as the gasoline it displaces. Although the RFS still has defenders in Congress, hardly anyone on the Hill today talks about beefing up the RFS with flex-fuel vehicle mandates or subsidized biofuel pipelines, blender pumps, and storage tanks.

Can’t Get There from Here

Green activists blame “oil-fueled, coal-powered” politicians for Congress’s ‘failure’ to address climate change. The real reason, however, is that nobody knows how to sustain a modern economy with wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuel.

The Breakthrough Institute developed this point in its Death of Cap-and-Trade blog posts. Because affordable energy is vital to prosperity and much of the world is energy poor, it would be economically ruinous and, thus, politically suicidal to make people abandon fossil fuels before cheaper alternative energies are available. That, however, is exactly what “comprehensive energy and climate legislation” aimed to do.

As the Breakthrough folks argue, if you’re worried about climate change, then your chief policy objective should be to make alternative energy cheaper than fossil energy. Instead, the green movement attempted to make fossil energy more costly than alternative energy, or to simply mandate the switch to alternative energy regardless of cost. Al Gore’s call in 2008 to “re-power America” with zero-carbon energy within 10 years epitomizes this folly. More “moderate” variants would only do less harm, less rapidly.

EPA Is Legislating Climate Policy

Lastly, energy is on the legislative back burner because the EPA is already enacting the green movement’s agenda via administrative action. Why risk voter ire over controversial climate legislation when it is easier to sit back and watch the EPA take the heat or implement regulations few people outside of Washington even know about?

This situation is likely to persist as long as divided government persists. Many Democrats are content to let the EPA run roughshod over the separation of powers and implement policies the people’s representatives would reject if introduced as legislation and put to a vote. Many Republicans fear to challenge the EPA, knowing how difficult it is to overcome a presidential veto and how easily efforts to reclaim Congress’s authority to determine climate policy can be villified as attacks on science and children’s health.

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