Romney’s Energy Plans Don’t Bode Well for the Future

Mitt Romney has officially given up on the future. At least, that’s the way it looks from the energy plan he released last month.

The future is in peril for a number of reasons. Climate change is slowly eroding the environmental stability we’ve enjoyed for centuries. The wide gap between what we import and what we export is driving manufacturing jobs overseas. And our dependence on foreign oil embroils our national security in the explosive Middle East.

With his new energy plan, Romney surrendered on all three fronts.

When Romney proposed expanding oil drilling to previously restricted areas, he was probably listening to people like Fox News commentator Peter Morici, who has said, “Oil imports could be cut by two-thirds by boosting U.S. oil production to 10 million barrels a day.”

Only one problem: It’s impossible.

According to the Energy Information Agency, even if we open all those lands to exploration, our current production of 6 million barrels per day will never grow to more than 7.5 million, let alone 10. There just isn’t enough oil under the ground — and even if there were, it wouldn’t be available for another decade.

So we will always import oil — unless we replace it with something else.

By “something else,” of course I’m referring to renewable energy. The Romney plan, however, doesn’t propose a single policy to encourage the development and export of renewable energy technologies. Instead, it advocates even less oversight of an industry that experienced the worst environmental disaster in American history only two years ago.

Romney’s preference for oil over solar and wind power is particularly striking in light of his party’s alarmism over inflation (which never seems to materialize when they say it will). After all, oil prices have been rising for three decades, while manufacturing prices have been falling.

Since the 1990s, installation costs for wind power have fallen by 90 percent. In last year alone, solar panel prices fell 50 percent. Compare that to gas prices, which…well, you know.

Someone needs to tell Mitt Romney: You can’t be an inflation hawk and an oil bull at the same time. If you commit the nation to more oil, you’re committing to rising prices.

For a candidate so enthralled with innovation and entrepreneurship, it’s especially astonishing to see Romney’s indifference to the renewable energy market. If any industry could close the trade deficit with China, it’s solar and wind power, where China has much less advantage than in other manufactured products because labor only accounts for 4 percent of the total cost. “Imported oil and subsidized imports from China account for nearly the entire trade gap,” according to Morici.

So why not kill two birds with one stone?

Once upon a time, the federal government would have supported a blossoming industry like renewable technologies. Back when it was the fastest-growing economy in the world, the United States had the world’s highest industrial tariffs, protecting its young factories until they were strong enough to compete with foreign firms.

No longer. Under the rules of the World Trade Organization, high tariffs are not allowed, except in retaliation to a foreign competitor’s protectionism. China, for example, is now paying such a price for subsidizing its solar companies, giving them an unfair advantage over American firms like SolarWorld.

But, in many ways, the damage is done. Since receiving subsidies from the Chinese government, several Chinese companies have overtaken their American competitors. If we want to fight back, we’ll have to do the same with loan guarantees, tax credits, and major government purchases (all of which are allowed by the WTO).

But the Romney plan features nothing of the sort.

Sadly, we’ve seen this indifference before. As Judith Stein documents in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, we have watched too many opportunities go by since the 1970s, allowing foreign governments to subsidize their manufacturers while ours closed factories.

This is another such opportunity. But instead of seizing it, Romney is content to allow it to fall into the hands of the Chinese, just as he is willing to let the environment fall into the hands of Big Oil. The future will just have to fend for itself.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.