Americans Still Want Renewable Energy — and They’re Going to Get It

American Public Support Effort to Reduce Global Warming

James Gaddy knows manure. Chicken manure, to be exact. He’s spent years working with it. That may not sound like much fun to you and me, but Gaddy is on a mission to power the earth — and, in the process, save it.

Specifically, Gaddy has figured out a way to produce ethanol from the bacteria in chicken manure. And it’s cellulosic ethanol, not the corn-based kind that siphons land in Iowa, jacks up the price of food, and results in almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline. No, this stuff is the real deal. It dramatically reduces greenhouse gases, and it comes from something we were going to throw away anyway.

I used to write about cellulosic ethanol, back when I first starting writing op-ed columns over six years ago. That was before the Great Recession — before we all became obsessed with the economy. People were more concerned about environmental issues then.

The most popular policy I proposed was a Manhattan Project for the 21st century: a national investment in a range of alternative energy technologies that would wean us off foreign oil and dramatically increase the efficiency of our energy use. It would be a public-private partnership. The free market would lead the way, creating and selling the products, but they would be supported by startup capital and loan guarantees from the federal government, the only entity big enough to absorb the upfront costs for a new national infrastructure, as it did in the days of Eisenhower and Roosevelt and even Jefferson.

People loved that idea. They saw it as this generation’s “we choose to go to the moon” moment. When the economy started to weaken in 2007, they liked the idea even more. Now, it wasn’t just investing in the future; it was creating jobs for today.

And it wasn’t just Democrats. The majority of my readers were Republicans, and they thought it was a great way to distance ourselves from Middle Eastern oil producers without a lot of government regulation.

According to a survey released earlier this week, their opinion hasn’t changed. The Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University polled Republicans and independents who vote Republican, and they found that 77 percent think we should use more renewable energy. A majority of them believe this so strongly that they think it’s worth the cost of any government intervention that may be necessary to achieve that goal. In fact, when they read the 2012 Republican Party platform, which doesn’t mention climate change but does celebrate coal and oil, two-thirds of them disagreed with it.

So I think it’s fair to say that Americans of both parties still want a large, Manhattan-style investment in renewable energy. Which brings me back to James Gaddy.

In Vero Beach, Florida, the Swiss company INEOS is building a biorefinery that will use Gaddy’s research to convert waste into eight million gallons of ethanol every year, all the while powering itself and creating electricity for others to use. This project would not have happened without a $50 million grant from the federal government, one of many grants included in the 2009 stimulus that has become so unpopular.

In fact, as investigative reporter Michael Grunwald documents in exhaustive detail in his book The New New Deal, the 2009 stimulus was “the biggest and most transformative energy bill in U.S. history,” funding everything from electric vehicles to high-speed rail, from biorefineries to wind farms, from solar panel manufacturing to home weatherization.

As it turned out, we got our Manhattan Project, and no one noticed. The Obama administration didn’t sell it, the media didn’t report it, and the Republicans in Congress did everything in their power to hide it and discredit it.

It wasn’t enough, but it was a start — and if the George Mason poll is any indication, it won’t be the end. The enemies of progress can stand in our way, but they can’t hold us back.

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

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.

“Drill, Obama, Drill” Won’t Save You at the Gas Station

Republicans have a problem. The economy is improving…under President Obama’s watch.

And it is precisely because the economy is improving, both here and abroad, that gasoline prices are rising.

Because they can no longer blame him for slow growth or rising unemployment, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich are now blaming the President for high gas prices, which is a little like blaming him for a strong economy, a charge he’d gladly plead guilty to.

So here’s my question for the candidates: If Democratic policies are responsible for oil that now costs $102/barrel, does that mean that Republican policies were responsible for oil that cost $145/barrel back in 2008?

In fact, George W. Bush oversaw the largest rise in oil prices in American history, from $20/barrel in 2001. And you know what? It wasn’t his fault either.

Demand is growing, and supply can’t keep up. Global production has been flat since 2005. No president can change that.

But you can’t say Barack Obama hasn’t tried.

President Obama has overseen the largest rise in drilling rigs in American history, from less than 200 in April 2009 to over 1,200 today. American oil production is the highest it’s been in eight years. We now import 15 percent less oil than we did in 2005. For the first time since 1949, the United States is a net exporter of gasoline, diesel, and other fuels.

There was a time, not too long ago, when none of this was true. Back then, during the last presidential campaign, we were told that “drill, baby, drill” was the answer to our woes.

Well, we’ve tested their theory. We’ve ramped up drilling exponentially. We’re living through a mini-boom in oil production. And gas prices keep rising.

The skeptics have been vindicated.

But old slogans die hard.

No amount of drilling can bring back the good old days. According to economist James Hamilton, “The 138 million barrels produced in North Dakota and Montana in 2010 is about half of what the state of Oklahoma produced in 1927 and a fifth of what the state of Alaska produced in 1988.”

Increasing production in new oil fields only replaces declining production elsewhere. That’s why American oil production has fallen from 10 million barrels per day in 1970 to 6 million today.

Even with new shale oil in North Dakota and further exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, the International Energy Agency predicts we’ll never produce more than 6.7 million barrels per day. Even if the President opened the Outer Continental Shelf to exploration, the best we could expect is another 0.5 million barrels per day.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket on the world stage, where prices are set. If we opened every possible region to oil exploration, the Energy Information Administration estimates that gas prices would fall two cents per gallon.

But not until 2030.

Because drilling takes a long time.

That’s why, when the Washington Post fact-checkers tried to figure out how the Keystone XL pipeline might affect gas prices, they reported: “We could not find any experts…to say that the prospect of the pipeline being built in the future would somehow impact the price of gasoline today.”

Two cents per gallon, eighteen years from now. Is that what our environment is worth? Is that what the safety of our workforce is worth?

After the worst environmental disaster in American history.

After a record-setting fourteen billion-dollar weather disasters last year.

After the highest Arctic temperatures and the lowest Arctic sea ice volume on record.

After fourteen dangerous leaks at the first Keystone pipeline.

Can we not say we’ve been warned?

But the Republican candidates don’t care. If they really cared about rising gas prices, they wouldn’t be beating the war drums against Iran. Time and time again, conflict in the Middle East has inflated the price of oil.

Just ask George W. Bush. Okay, so maybe it was his fault after all.

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