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Hiding Renewables Inside the 'All of the Above' Energy Strategy Won't Work

03/18/2013 08:24 am ET | Updated May 18, 2013

Last week, President Obama proposed using $2 billion in gas and oil royalties to fund research into alternative methods of powering cars, trucks and buses. It looks good on the surface, but as David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists observed, it would take ten years to raise the $2 billion and:

"Given that the DoE's main energy efficiency and renewable energy research office (EERE) has a potential 2013 budget of about $2 billion, the trust could represent a 10 percent increase overall, and a 25 percent boost if you look only at their transportation related budget."

There is a sort of poetic justice to using royalties from fossil fuel extraction to discover a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but this is no one's idea of a crash program to fund alternative energy research. In fact, in an era of ideologically based antigovernment budget-cutting, an increase here will likely be offset by decreased research funding elsewhere. As John Broder wrote recently in the New York Times:

"Argonne National Laboratory, which has done groundbreaking research in vehicle battery technology that has helped jump-start the electric car industry in the United States... is now facing reductions under the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration. The laboratory's director, Eric D. Isaacs... warned this week that the spending cuts would have a devastating impact on scientific innovation now and far into the future."

Even worse, no sooner had the president announced his meager plan, than the usual suspects responded with their automatic, reflex-like rejection. As Phillip Rucker reported last week in the Washington Post:

"After details of Obama's plan emerged Friday morning, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) voiced skepticism about it and suggested that the administration ought to do more to grow domestic oil and gas production."

It is clear that no great national renewable energy project is possible with an anti-government Republican Party in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives. The basic research on alternative energy so vital to America's future will not take place until we elect a Congress willing to spend more money on science and technology research. It is useful for the president to use his executive authority to do whatever he can to fund this research and to raise to cost of global warming pollution through EPA's command and control style regulation. But this "small ball" strategy is not enough, and no one should be fooled into thinking it is.

As I wrote last week, the strategy of "all of the above" is not a real energy policy, but a political slogan designed to reduce political heat and in this case, squeeze a little renewable energy research through under the broad cloak of a policy that continues to promote fossil fuels.

If we promote every form of energy, why would anyone oppose throwing a few crumbs at alternative energy? You can almost hear the Administration pleading to industry lobbyists: "We're not some soft-minded advocates of renewable energy, we're not against fossil fuels; we're in favor of every form of energy." This may sound like pragmatic, hard-headed politics inside the beltway, but from out here it seems weak, confused and self-defeating. We're not going to transition off fossil fuels by continuing to promote their extraction and use. We need strong, direct, presidential leadership. We need a president willing to expend real political capital and take this issue on directly.

The world doesn't need America to lead an "all of the above" approach to energy. The intense demand for energy in the developing world is already following that strategy. China is spending money on solar. But the real money is going to fossil fuels. Coal fired power plants are being built and planned at a ferocious rate. According to the World Resources Institute:

"... 1,199 new coal-fired plants, with a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 megawatts (MW), are being proposed globally. These projects are spread across 59 countries. China and India together account for 76 percent of the proposed new coal power capacities."

There is no question that demand for energy will continue to increase, and that inadequate energy supplies would be economically devastating and politically destabilizing. It is easy to see why national leaders, like our own president, gravitate to the "all of the above" energy strategy. My point is that we do not need governments to advocate or pursue "all of the above". The free market will take care of that on its own. The only way to intervene in that market is to fund the basic research that will generate a transformative energy technology. The only way to reduce the use of fossil fuels is to develop an energy source that is cheaper and hopefully safer and cleaner than fossil fuels. Until government funds the basic research needed to develop renewable alternatives, we will have no choice but to burn fossil fuels.

It's certainly true that an extra $200 million a year for energy research can't hurt. Perhaps the president will find a few other billion in the military and NSF budgets to add to the fund. A little extra cash can go a long way in the hands of capable scientists. But something this important needs more attention, more rhetoric and much more money.

There is no single issue more important to the development of a sustainable economy than the transition to renewable energy. We have a president who seems to understand this in his brain, but his awareness has not made the journey to his gut. In contrast to President Obama's understanding of the issue and his sense that it requires government action, we see Republicans in Congress denying climate science and delegitimizing any role for government in addressing our energy needs. While one would think that our nation's economic well-being might stimulate some consensus on this issue, we see either a cynical denial of scientific fact or a level of scientific illiteracy that is truly terrifying.

The approach followed by some political leaders, such as President Obama and Governor Andrew Cuomo is to give climate deniers a pass: "Even if you don't think we have a climate problem we should certainly... (fill in the blank):_____________ protect our infrastructure from flooding; pursue all energy sources we can find; invest in energy efficiency, and so on. They and their advisors will argue that we need to be politically realistic, and build consensus. Most of the time I agree with that approach; but the private market forces behind fossil fuels are strong and growing. The demand for energy in the developing world, and our own deep dependence on energy here in America ensures a growing demand for energy. Americans can get more efficient and stop wasting energy; but no one around here is going to go off the grid and power down. The climate problem will only get worse if we do not transition off of fossil fuels.

The political power of energy companies is an intense and central part of the environment of policy decision-making in Washington. It may well be that the Obama team has decided to invest its political capital elsewhere, where the probability of success seems greater. It would take unusual courage and skill to pursue government energy policy that resists this economic and political force. It may be too much to expect President Obama to push back against this force, but without strong and constant presidential leadership, rapid change is unlikely.