It’s curious that energy hasn’t been as big an issue in this year’s presidential campaign as it was in 2008, the year of “Drill, baby, drill.” The price of unleaded regular gasoline has averaged roughly a dime per gallon higher through September than either last year or the same period in 2008, when prices peaked at $4.11 per gallon in July. Gas prices are higher this year because global oil prices are also higher, with UK Brent crude averaging $15 per barrel over its 2008 full-year average, though without a similar spike. One explanation for the reduced focus on energy is that President Obama co-opted his opponents’ “all of the above” prescription, while many indicators such as US crude oil production and natural gas output and prices have been moving in favorable directions. The Obama campaign and key administration officials routinely draw a strong causal connection between those two facts, forming the basis of their campaign on energy. But is that claim true? Like the Washington Post fact checker’s assessment of another frequent presidential assertion about energy, a finding of “true but false” seems appropriate.
Although I had intended to provide a side-by-side comparison of President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s energy agendas, it quickly became obvious that that was impractical, due to length and complexity. I’ll take a look at the challenger’s ideas next week. Since any re-election bid is fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent, it made sense to start with the record of an administration that came into office with an unusually clear and clearly articulated vision on energy, experienced some notable victories and defeats along the way, and ended up embracing a pair of big, emerging trends that it had done virtually nothing to foster.
That is readily apparent when it comes to oil production, which must be a core element of any “all of the above” approach, since that “all” implicitly includes fossil fuels along with renewables and efficiency. Go to the Obama campaign web page on energy and you’ll see this chart:
Aside from the fact that changing the axis scale makes the trend look much more dramatic, what’s entirely missing from both these charts and the websites where they appear is any cogent explanation of why oil production is rising. That requires some context about the industry and oil markets that I’ve overlaid in the following graphs:
Most oil projects big enough to matter aren’t accomplished overnight. The process typically involves acquiring onshore or offshore leases, obtaining the necessary permits, conducting exploration activities that only proceed to the next step based on success, planning the required production wells and processing facilities, competing for internal funding against other company projects, obtaining additional permits, constructing facilities and drilling the production wells. Every step takes time. Depending on the complexity of the project, the overall timeline can span from three to seven years, and that’s if no one sues to block the project. To see why oil production has been rising since 2009, we need to ask what was happening in 2003-6. The answer is that after many years of being stuck in a range of $20-30 per barrel–with an excursion down to single digits in the late 1990s–oil prices tripled during that period, mainly due to the combination of global economic growth, especially in Asia, and the lagged effect on oil project investments from that late-’90s price crash. In other words, production went up mainly because five or six years earlier the financial rewards for drilling suddenly got much bigger.
So at a minimum it’s a stretch–mere spin–to claim credit for higher production that is attributable to events and perhaps policies on your predecessor’s watch. However, the picture looks worse when we factor in the policies and attitudes that went into effect when this administration took office in early 2009. Recall that one of the first energy decisions of the new administration was Interior Secretary Salazar’s cancellation of previously awarded oil leases in Utah. Later that year a senior Treasury official–currently chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers–testified before Congress that US policies were promoting the “overproduction of US oil and gas“, just as the now-touted production surge was starting. For at least its first several years, the rhetoric and actions of the Obama White House were generally consistent with that view and with Mr. Obama’s portrayal of oil and gas as “yesterday’s energy” in his 2011 State of the Union address. The brief offshore drilling opening signaled in spring 2010 was quickly retracted following the Deepwater Horizon accident, with the imposition of a six-month offshore drilling moratorium and subsequent “permitorium“. Those responses–justified or not–resulted in Gulf of Mexico production falling by 22% since mid-2010, a decline that has been masked by the tremendous success of “tight oil” exploration and production in Texas and North Dakota. (The time lag for the moratorium’s effects was negligible, because the deepwater projects that were halted had already been planned and permitted.)
In fact, the President’s adoption of “all of the above” is fairly recent, making headlines following his 2012 State of the Union. It represents quite an evolution from Senator Obama’s 2008 emphasis on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. President Obama certainly pursued those agendas with vigor, incorporating billions of dollars of federal grants and loan guarantees for renewables in the 2009 stimulus, backing the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and at both the Copenhagen and Cancun UN climate conferences committing the US to significant greenhouse gas reduction targets and further negotiations.
It hasn’t all worked out as planned, though. Notwithstanding the high-profile bankruptcies of Solyndra–a colossal failure of due diligence by the administration–and other loan guarantee and grant beneficiaries, the output of wind, solar and other non-hydro renewable energy generation has indeed grown by 55% since 2008, increasing from 3.1% to 4.7% of total US electricity generation, equivalent to 1.9% of total energy consumption. Yet sadly the wind and solar manufacturing sectors that were to have produced so many “green jobs” are caught up in parallel waves of excess global production capacity that could take years–or wrenching consolidation–to work off. The overcapacity that has blighted the prospects of many of these companies is largely attributable to the generous incentives provided by the US and other governments from Europe to Asia. Direct wind and solar jobs accounted for just 54,000 of the US “clean economy jobs” tallied by Brookings and Battelle in their study last year, and they look no more secure than non-green jobs.
Climate policy is another area featuring a big disconnect between effort and results. With control of both Houses of Congress, the President backed a climate bill that exhibited all the worst tendencies of that body: 1,092 pages of bloated regulations and carve-outs for favored constituencies. Even to someone who had supported the idea of cap and trade for a decade, it was a dog’s breakfast, configured mainly as a production-inhibiting tax on the US petroleum sector. Waxman-Markey failed to pass the Senate, and a more bi-partisan bill died in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon and the recession. Whatever one’s views on the science of climate change, costly climate legislation looked like a bad bet in a weak economy. Actual emissions have fallen, however, as a result not of policy but of another trend that wasn’t on the administration’s radar screen until it grew too large to ignore: shale gas. Emissions are at a 20-year low, mainly due to fuel switching from coal to cheap natural gas in the utility sector.
Another key trend cited as evidence of the effectiveness of the administration’s energy policies is the reduction of oil imports that has occurred since 2008. Yet like the facts on oil production, the causes are only tenuously connected to those policies. From 2008-11, US net petroleum imports fell by 2.6 million bbl/day (MBD), including refined products. That goes a long way toward achieving then-candidate Obama’s goal of reducing imports by an amount equivalent to what the US imported from the Middle East and Venezuela. However, the biggest contributor to this reduction was the 1.1 MBD increase in total US petroleum production (including natural gas liquids), followed by a 0.6 MBD drop in demand that had more to do with reduced driving and the weak economy than the early gains from tougher fuel economy rules. Increasing biofuel production associated with the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard contributed another 0.3 MBD, although that policy now stands in urgent need of reform.
I have watched many elections in my life, and I can’t honestly say I’m surprised to see an administration running on something other than its actual energy record, which in this case includes positives such as funding ARPA-E’s potentially transformational energy R&D and having enough sense to keep largely out of the way of the shale gas revolution–at least for now. Yet having focused 90% of its efforts on a set of technologies that look important for the future but will still meet less than 10% of our energy needs for some time to come, they have now hitched their electoral wagon to an oil production surge that they didn’t help and partly hindered. I can only imagine that this would be deeply disappointing to those who supported Mr. Obama in 2008 because of his vision for alternative energy and the environment. Nor does it provide much comfort to those who found large portions of that agenda ill-considered or premature. The President’s 11th-hour conversion to “all of the above” creates great uncertainty about the course he would pursue with regard to energy for the next four years, if reelected.