Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lobbyists, Cynicism, and Energy Policy


When you're wrong you should say you're wrong. In the article shown below in its original form I complained that President Obama was offering only symbolic gestures in dealing with the important problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. Today, May 19, 2009, he announced important changes in the rules governing CO2 emissions from vehicles. Some plans were in place to limit emissions in 2020, a time so far off in the future as to be meaningless. Under the new rules, auto manufacturers will have to start meeting new fuel efficiency standards beginning in 2012. The rules will be tightened yearly until 2016, when passenger cars will have to achieve 39 mpg and light trucks 30 mpg.

One could protest that the changes are too little and too late. For onlookers who are concerned about the headlong rush to habitat destruction in which humans are engaged, the plan seems over-solicitous of auto executives. But it clearly isn't a symbolic gesture.

I still think that Jon Wellinghoff's comment, discussed in the article below, is cause for alarm. Since the President faces political constraints most of us can't appreciate, though, I suppose we should respect his judgment and look for continuing reforms to the country's energy and environmental policies.


I haven't added articles for a long time because anything I said would be repetitious. But something has changed so maybe it's right to do another.

When President Obama was running for the office he holds now, he spoke against cynicism. "The era of Scooter Libby justice, and Brownie incompetence, and the Karl Rove politics of fear and cynicism will be over." Spartanburg, SC | November 03, 2007 He promised us.

Soon after taking office, he barred former lobbyists from working for agencies they had lobbied within the past two years and required them to recuse themselves from issues they had handled during that time and barred officials of his administration from lobbying their former colleagues "for as long as I am president." New York Times, January 21, 2009. Pres. Obama set the rule at two years because he isn't one to limit his options.

So how does Pres. Obama deal with the important problem of energy and global warming? He appoints Jon Wellinghoff to be head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Chairman Wellinghoff is a lawyer who has made a career of lobbying on behalf of consumer and anti-nuclear political groups. Before joining FERC, he was Nevada’s Consumer Advocate for Customers of Public Utilities. Prior to that, while a lawyer in private practice, he was the primary author of the Nevada Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Act. He spent over thirty years lobbying on behalf of renewable-energy businesses. FERC

So we see the rule against lobbyists only applies to lobbyists who didn't support Candidate Obama. It's okay, though, because of the two-year rule.

What about cynicism? Here's what Chairman Wellinghoff has to say about nuclear energy: "We may not need any, ever." His solution: "Natural gas is going to be there for a while, because it's going to be there to get us through this transition that's going to take 30 or more years." New York Times, April 22, 2009

What this means is that cynicism has taken over energy policy in the Obama administration. Maybe the President and the Chairman are right. The problem of global warming is so daunting, perhaps even insurmountable, that there's no point in trying to solve it. Political considerations preclude ignoring it, especially since it faces us every day in the news, so the only response left is symbolic gestures. We'll put up some wind turbines and solar panels. We'll sprinkle money around university research labs to pretend we take new-age gimmicks seriously. Mainly, we'll follow T. Boone Pickens's plan to burn natural gas until it's all gone.

Obviously, cynicism is no substitute for policy. But it doesn't matter, because the destructive effects of global warming will hit after Pres. Obama retires. See how that works?


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I, for one, welcome his attitude, since there is nothing whatsoever we can do about global warming. Nothing. Zip. Nada. The carbon dioxide is going into the air, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

This is because most of the world's carbon (oil, coal, and gas) is controlled by nasty people who have no other possible source of income. They will sell. Even if the U.S. and Europe don't buy, China and India will. They have no choice if they want to feed their enormous populations.

So unless we intend to conquer and destroy 3/4 of the world, or find a way to confine them to low growth/low carbon societies, we need to learn to live with the consequences. In fact our best bet is to spend our limited resources on figuring out how to sequester carbon.

Red Craig said...

Anonymous, thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

I can't imagine a more fruitless solution than carbon sequestration. Any location would have to be tested and the testing would likely take decades. Prospects of success at any location are poor, so the world will spend centuries testing prospective locations, until all the fossil fuels are used up, at which time alternatives will have to be found anyway.

China and India do have other choices, and there is plenty we can do. At some point both those countries, like the rest of the world, will realize that the externalized costs of burning fossil fuels makes them uncompetitive.

At this point, they already realize that fossil fuels won't be adequate and also have the additional problem of making them depend on other countries for energy. They have sufficient incentive to develop non-fossil sources and at some point will be able to expand those sources to displace fossil fuels.

All of this is true without considering the cost of climate change. When that is factored in, they will find the economics of decarbonization irresistible.

I don't agree with your conclusion, but thanks for your thoughtful comment.