With debate over the Keystone XL pipeline heating up, the White House has issued an update of President Obama's "Blueprint for a Clean and Secure Energy Future." It is the latest of White House policy pronouncements that leave us wondering whether President Obama will ever uncage his inner revolutionary to fight for genuine energy security.
At this point, it's anyone's guess. The blueprint's content does not live up to the promise of its title. It contains stark contradictions. It sticks to Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy -- a strategy transparently designed to keep all-of-the-above special interests happy. Because it supports all types of energy -- including the fossil fuels responsible for global climate change -- it advocates nothing.
Oil Production: The president's energy blueprint acknowledges that "rising gas prices serve as a reminder that we are still too reliant on oil, which comes at a cost to American families and businesses." It "urges Congress to take up common-sense proposals that will further reduce our dependence on oil."
At the same time, it boasts that since President Obama took office, "responsible oil and gas production has increased each year" in the United States. "Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years," the president said last year. "Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high."
If we are too dependent on oil, why is the president so bullish on producing more?
Energy Research: At a time the United States is under-investing in renewable energy R&D, the president's new budget proposes $375 million for research on "cleaner energy from fossil fuels" including "more responsible" natural gas production and more funding for "clean coal" technology and carbon capture and storage.
While some fossil fuels are dirtier than others, none are clean. They all emit greenhouse gases when they are burned. They all involve environmental disruption when they are extracted. The cleanest of the fuels from a carbon standpoint, natural gas, has been accused of contaminating groundwater and leaking so much methane that it could be a bigger contributor to climate change than coal.
Meantime, clean energy is all around us but greatly underused. As others have pointed out, the greatest power plant ever created gives us free energy with no pollution, delivers it everywhere within seconds from 93 million miles away and won't run out of fuel for seven billion years. Rather than harvesting energy from the sun, why are we still trying so hard to dig it up from underground?
Corporate Welfare: To his credit, President Obama has urged Congress to repeal billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for the oil industry. But from the standpoint of an effective market, providing taxpayer money for research on "cleaner energy from fossil fuels" is no better. The coal, gas and oil industries are all grown up now and making pretty good livings. Most other businesses have to do their own R&D to remain relevant in a changing market. Why shouldn't the fossil industries?
As for natural gas, why should taxpayers foot the bill to help the industry be more responsible? If gas companies don't adopt more responsible production practices voluntarily, the government's job is not to write them a check; it's to implement regulations that protect the public. That's what EPA is trying to do with the standards it announced last year to control methane and other air pollutants from oil and gas operations.
In the meantime gas companies aren't showing a lot of interest in responsible production; instead they seem to be fracking and drilling as fast as they can before regulations can take effect.
Making Our Own Drug: The International Energy Agency predicts that fracking and horizontal drilling will make the United States the world's largest oil producer sometime around 2017, surpassing even Saudi Arabia.
That would be a welcome change from nearly a half-century of dependence on foreign oil. But it also would make us the world's biggest producer of one of the products most responsible for global climate disruption. Is that the title we want? Or, as the nation responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, shouldn't we set a more moral example as the nation that leads the world to a low-carbon economy?
Shouldn't we at least have a national energy plan that defines how and when we'll end our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic -- a down-ramp that signals our commitment to other nations and gives financial markets an incentive to capitalize our transition to clean energy?
Domestic Security: While the advocates of the Keystone pipeline mistakenly claim that it will be good for national security, few have discussed the project's impacts on homeland security. Oil and gas pipelines are among the most vulnerable parts of America's infrastructure. Amory and Hunter Lovins warned about this 30 years ago in their book Brittle Power:
"Federal policies are systematically making the energy system more vulnerable. The devices being promoted as the backbone of America's energy supply for the 21st Century are precisely the most vulnerable ones: offshore and Arctic oil and gas, big pipelines, and huge power plants (especially nuclear ones) linked by long transmission lines."
Pipelines are even more vulnerable today. Saboteurs and terrorists don't need to bother with infiltration and dynamite. The investigation that traced computer attacks against American institutions to China earlier this year dramatized how hackers anywhere on the planet can take control of U.S. oil and gas pipelines. One such attack already has occurred against Telvent, which keeps blueprints on more than half the oil and gas pipelines in North and South America.
William Rush is a retired scientist who worked for the Gas Technology Institute and led an effort to create a cyber security standard for the gas pipeline industry. "Anyone can blow up a gas pipeline with dynamite," he says. "But with this stolen information (about the gas distribution infrastructure), if I wanted to blow up not one, but 1,000 compressor stations, I could. I could put the attack vectors in place, let them sit there for years, and set them all off at the same time. I don't have to worry about getting people physically in place to do the job, I just pull the trigger with one mouse click."
During one of his debates with Mitt Romney last fall, President Obama boasted that during his first term "we've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some." The Department of Transportation confirmed that nearly 30,000 miles of new pipelines were built during Obama's first term.
In other words, we've moved approximately 30,000 miles farther away from domestic security over the last four years. Does it make sense for the federal government to spend billions of dollars on homeland security while encouraging the oil industry to spend billions more on energy infrastructure that makes us more vulnerable?
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The good news that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen 13 percent since 2007 is not a license to produce more fossil fuels. While some of that progress can be attributed to the Administration's new vehicle economy standards, other factors are more fleeting.
Progressive state policies and welcome gains in national energy efficiency deserve significant credit for the decline in U.S. emissions, but conservatives around the country now are attacking those policies. The recession, the slow recovery and high gas prices helped depress emissions, but none of those is a factor we want to sustain. Natural gas prices have been low enough to encourage utilities to switch from coal, but those prices likely will rise with environmental regulations and greater demand.
As New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter puts it, "The United States' serendipitous success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions suggests how much more needs to be done than switching from a particularly dirty source of carbon to a cleaner one."
Temporary Sustainability: In its update of the president's energy blueprint on March 15, the White House said it showed that Obama has "reiterated his commitment to a sustained, all-of-the-above energy strategy." But how can we have a sustained energy strategy built in large part on finite resources?
None of this criticism should detract from the many good things President Obama has done so far to move us closer to a clean and secure economy. But there is disturbing dissonance and intellectual flimflam in the administration's energy blueprint.
It is intellectually dishonest for the president to be bullish on fossil energy at the same time he promises to fight climate change, or to believe that building more fragile energy infrastructure is compatible with security, or that oil from any source protects us from spikes in gas prices, or that we can sustain a robust and competitive economy with fuels that are finite, environmentally dangerous and increasingly difficult to reach.
As I've written before, President Obama is not wrong to consider "all of the above" energy resources for our future. But he, and we, should support only the "best of the above." We need a national energy blueprint that distinguishes the clean from the dirty, the safe from the dangerous, the stable from the volatile, and the sustainable from the finite. We need a timetable that's ambitious. As Sam Walton reportedly said in a different context: "Incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy. We don't want continuous improvement, we want radical change."
For better or worse, President Obama's energy blueprint is a climate blueprint, an economic blueprint and a national security blueprint. It defines America's future as well as Obama's long-term legacy. He has a choice: He can be President Pipeline or President Sunshine, but he can't be both.
Even though he has been liberated from reelection, we are gradually discovering that Barack Obama may not be the revolutionary change agent we so badly need.