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US Energy Policy: A Bridge to Nowhere

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Recent polls indicate that Americans do not appear to be concerned about global climate change or national energy policy.  Understandably, most of us are worried about jobs, the economy, and gridlock in Washington.  America's narrow focus is unfortunate, because the decisions we make about energy today will determine the quality of life for our descendants.

Every so often, President Obama talks about energy policy.  During this year's , he said:

After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar -- with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before -- and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.  But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.  

Nonetheless, little happened.  In October, after signing the bill that ended the government shutdown, the President spelled out his primary priorities for the remainder of the year: obtain a Federal budget agreement, farm bill, and comprehensive immigration reform.   There was no mention of energy policy or the challenge of climate change.

In many ways, the President's energy policy has mirrored his handling of the Syrian civil war.  Perhaps because both Syria and global climate change appear to be intractable problems.  Recently, journalist Mark Danner wrote about Syria:

US policy, through a series of ill-advised, ad hoc, and often improvised words and actions" has come almost accidentally to focus on Syria's chemical weapons program.

Until recently, the ghastly Syrian civil war didn't get much attention.  That's because, in the foreign policy arena, the Obama Administration has had only two objectives: remove American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

During the past five years, the White House had three domestic policy objectives: the economic recovery, jobs, and homeland security.  On other important domestic issues -- immigration reform, gun safety, education, infrastructure repair, and so forth -- the Administration has not sponsored a major initiative.   With regards to global climate change, to paraphrase Mark Danner, "US energy policy has been a series of ill-advised, ad hoc, and often improvised words and actions."

Writing in Forbes, energy scientist ames Conca observed:

Let's face it, we don't have a rational long-term energy or climate plan. It's just lucky that fracking emerged so quickly to give us an alternative to coal that could be implemented right now" The ideological embrace of renewables at all costs and the knee-jerk rejection of safe nuclear power, together with the new-found ease of hydraulic fracturing [fracking], has forced the President to move in the only direction he can to reduce CO2 emissions -- ramp up natural gas and ramp down coal.

A decade ago, many progressives lauded natural gas as a bridge to the future, as a way to gracefully transition from petroleum and coal to renewable energy sources.  Now we see that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere, a bridge to the same set of problems from carbon-based fuels plus new vexing concerns resulting from the fracking process.  The miracle cure has turned out to have nasty side affects.

In his State-of-the-Union address Obama called upon Congress to come up with a "bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change."  Then he indicated he would act independently:

I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

In September the Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulations capping emissions from new coal plants. 

But these regulations are just one of the executive actions Obama needs to take if he intends to combat climate change.  Earlier this year Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune enumerated five essential Presidential actions:

  1. Reject the toxic Keystone XL pipeline.
  2. Protect our water from coal plant pollution.
  3. Close loopholes on fracking and protect our wildlands from oil and gas development.
  4. Finalize strong standards for cleaner tailpipe emissions.
  5. Move forward with standards against industrial pollution.

But the most important thing the President should do is propose a real bridge to the future, propose an energy strategy that does not depend upon natural gas.  At the moment 84 percent of America's energy usage is carbon based and only 8 percent is from renewable energy sources.  The White House needs to provide real leadership and address the tough questions at the heart of a responsible energy policy: How does America effect a massive shift towards renewables?  What's our plan to protect quality of life for our children and grandchildren?

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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