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Has the Climate Changed on Capitol Hill or Is It Congressional Warming?

April 14, 2011

Déjà vu!
“The United States would prefer to continue to import oil, petroleum products from the Mideast, from Venezuela, from Canada, from other countries, but also we are keenly aware of the fact that no nation, and particularly no industrial nation must be in a position of being at the mercy of any other nation by having its energy supplies suddenly cut off.”
……………………… President Richard Nixon, Remarks About the Nation’s Energy Policy, September 8, 1973
“The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our Nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.”
………………………  President Jimmy Carter, Crisis of Confidence, July 15 1979
Consistent with previous Administrations, the current “energy” climate in Washington DC is cold, cloudy, stormy and hot, but mostly blowing in the wind. It’s been rather difficult, if not nearly impossible, to determine America’s energy policy or at the lowest a comprehensive plan. Is Capitol Hill so dysfunctional that the best they can come up with is to back –  poking more holes in the Gulf, extracting tar sands in Utah, promoting Electric Vehicles as the ultimate cure-all, and passing short term incentives that makes long-term planning a game of roulette.
Current legislation embracing energy security and a cleaner environment lacks focus, contradictory, confusing and so minimalized that more heat is expended by the Executive and Legislative Branches than that from the programs themselves. Energy is not alone in this matter; Washington suffers a paralysis affecting other paramount issues of the day such as education, health care, job creation and the economy.
To stay on track, this discussion is a reflection on leadership, policy and direction, the current state of affairs and what can be done to meet America’s energy needs so eloquently stated by every administration over the last 40 years. Notwithstanding, the extreme polarization present in today’s government between Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partyites, it’s debatable if our leaders share a real concern for the future of America.
This notion is exemplified by the Department of Energy (“DoE”), whose mission is to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions. DoE’s funding from FY 1980 to that projected for FY 2012, in constant 2010 dollars is given in the following chart. Expenditures are broken down into four main programs; Defense, Energy, Environmental Management and Science. Programs areas include:
Defense
• National Nuclear Security Administration
• Atomic Energy Defense Activities
Energy
• Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
• Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability
• Nuclear Energy
• Fossil Energy Programs
Environmental Management
• Defense Environmental Cleanup
• Non-Defense Environmental Cleanup
• Uranium Enrichment D&D Fund
Science
• Advanced Scientific Computing Research
• Basic Energy Sciences
• Biological and Environmental Research
• Fusion Energy Sciences Program
• High Energy Physics
• Nuclear Physics
• Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientist
• Science Laboratories Infrastructure
• Safeguards and Security
• Science Program Direction
• Congressionally Directed Projects
• Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)
By Administration, the amount allocated to each of these areas is:
End of Carter’s Administration 1981
• 43% to Energy programs
• 11% to Defense
End of Reagan’s Administration (1989)
• 31% to Energy programs
• 47% to Defense
End of G.H.W. Bush’s  Administration (1993)
• 22% to Energy programs
• 37% to Defense
End of Clinton’s Administration (2001)
• 14% to Energy programs
• 38% to Defense
End of G.W. Bush’s Administration (2009)
• 17% to Energy programs
• 38% to Defense
End of Obama’s Administration (Project3d 2012)
• 17% to Energy programs
• 41% to Defense
Since Carter’s Administration the amount spent on energy programs has eroded from 43% to 17% of DoE’s budget.
Obama’s FY 2012 Budget request is stated to supports three strategic priorities:
• Transformational Energy: Accelerate the transformation to a clean energy economy and secure U.S. leadership in clean energy technologies.
• Economic Prosperity: Strengthen U.S. science and engineering efforts to serve as a cornerstone of our economic prosperity and lead through energy efficiency and secure forms of energy.
• Nuclear Security: Enhance nuclear security through defense, nonproliferation, naval reactors, and environmental cleanup efforts.
With some degree of certainty, national security through defense appropriations will be successful. However, it is less certain if energy security will be achieved by the projected expenditures in the highly diminished energy programs. Economic prosperity will be left to others to ruminate over.
Not sure where and when the term ‘Transformation Energy” was coined, but someone was creative enough to distract attention from renewable and energy efficiency programs that serve quite well the mission to reduce dependency on fossil fuels or foreign oil. Luckily, the budget still denotes appropriations for these programs, including hydrogen, biomass, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, vehicle technologies, building technologies, and industrial technologies.
In 2009, Peter Z. Grossman writing for “The Christian Science Monitor” said in an article titled “An Apollo program for US energy? – “History shows that massive federal support for alternative-energy projects could be a massive waste of money” (http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2009/0128/p09s01-coop.html).
He
goes on to say:
“Nearly every president since Richard Nixon has invoked the Apollo program to win support for some energy panacea program. President Obama went into Apollo-mode on the campaign trail to explain why he was going to spend $150 billion to jump-start renewable energy.”
“If government could do something so stupendous as put a man on the moon, surely it could produce a device to make us energy independent. Right? Well, no. The Apollo Program was an engineering feat.”
“Replacing conventional energy technologies with something new will be a commercial feat. Government is good at the former (although the New Orleans levees may give us pause); it’s terrible at the latter.”
“The fact that the technology exists and the government is behind it means very little when a consumer has to decide how to spend thousands of dollars. That’s why governments have historically failed to “pick winners” in the technology market.”
“The analogies to Apollo and Manhattan (District, atomic bomb project) miss the point. Their aim was to prove that we could do something. We can already do all of the energy technologies the Obama administration is touting. But that doesn’t mean they’ll become commonplace consumer purchases, even with massive federal support.”
“There really isn’t a good example of government ever providing a commercially viable alternative energy technology.”
In closing, the answer to the question “Has the Climate Changed on Capitol Hill?” is NO, at least since President Carter’s days. From Carter to Obama, all iterated the same theme. Other than more chaos and deeper into debt, unilaterally they delivered nothing. In fact the situation is worse today than it was when Carter reigned. American dependence on oil imports has almost doubled from 35% in 1973 to 60% by the end of 2010.
Today’s climate on Capital appears to be more polarized, combative, indifferent and self-serving. All proclaim the same energy security words are propagandized over and over again with little substance to share. All hear the glorious words of government inspired energy programs and directions. America has been crying wolf all too long.
Where DoE’s Energy expenditures were the #1 category in 1980, it is now the lowest with defense, environmental management and science ranking much higher. Obscuring the depth of the issue, energy dollars are being allocated to electricity delivery, fossil fuel, nuclear fuel and administration, which have less immediate impact on energy independence. Less available for renewables and energy efficiency than what the numbers suggest. Comparison of expenditures by program can be located at “The Department of Energy (DoE) Exposed: http://tinyurl.com/barry-stevens199.”
So
what can be done? One way is to do what Howard Beale did in “Network,” which is to shout out of the window “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” This could stimulate revenues for medical community but doubt it would be much help to achieve the desired goals of energy security and a cleaner environment.
A more pragmatic solution would be market drive. First and foremost, the U.S. must allow the price of oil to reflect its true cost. Remove subsidies and account for the myriad hidden costs such as the war in the Mideast, impact on the environment, contribution to the trade deficit, and added health-care from pollution.  In “Over a Barrel,” John Duffield discusses the costs of U.S. foreign oil dependence? He states, “Unfortunately, no one has yet offered a satisfactory answer to this vital question. As a result, the costs to the United States of its dependence on oil from abroad have gone largely unrecognized and, in fact, are much greater than most people realize. Some costs, like the annual bill for oil imports—and, by reflection, the price that motorists pay at the pump or the size of homeowners’ heating oil bills—are obvious and quantifiable. A number of others, however, are not so apparent or easy to measure. For example, it is difficult to put a price tag on the costs of coddling oil-rich authoritarian regimes at the expense of promoting representative government, human rights, and other important values.”
Naturally, petroleum prices will soar to previously unseen levels and unfortunately hurt a healing economy. But fortunately, renewable energy could finally compete on a level playing field. As seen several times in the past, this competitive picture is being played out today. The gap between petroleum and renewables is closing fast as the price of petroleum rises again and the cost of renewables such as solar is continuing to drop. The search for renewables is on its way. For those who been through this before, the concern is anticipation of another sharp drop in oil.  When this occurs, complacency sets in almost as fast. This time reason may prevail and America’s short-term pains will be long-term gains.
A final recommendation would be to get the government out of the energy business. On a performance basis, the government has failed; not once, not twice but continually over the last 40 years. Enough is enough. It’s time for the private sector to take over. Treat oil like the enemy. Don’t let the government fight a commercial war; let private enterprise do that. Unused federal dollars earmarked for wasteful energy programs should be returned to taxpayers. The added dollars would help stimulate demand for renewable and sustainable solutions. Concurrently, the U.S. must exert real pressure to eliminate unfair foreign trade practices.  And finally, American businesses may win the war and become globally competitive.
It’s worth a shot, can’t do much worse. Maybe transparent too! To quote Thomas Friedman:
“This is about us. This is about the world we and our children will inhabit for the rest of our lives ….”
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