After last week’s review of President Obama’s energy record and campaign materials on energy, Governor Romney’s energy plans present a sharp contrast. They are based on a fundamentally different view of energy and the economy, relying on markets to allocate capital to the most productive opportunities, rather than on government to guide a mix of public and private investments along specific paths towards designated ends. They also emphasize technologies that are already deployed at scale today, not those still under development or striving to attain scale. Implicitly, the Romney plan prioritizes supplying the energy for a robust economic recovery over programs designed to address long-term environmental challenges like climate change. These positions present voters with a serious and consequential choice on November 6th.
The Romney campaign’s website on energy arrays the candidate’s ideas mainly in words, rather than with the kind of images and interactive features that dominate the Obama campaign’s sites. Energy is the first plank of Governor Romney’s five-point “Plan for a Stronger Middle Class“, though it requires a little work to explore the details of his energy program. A list of bullet points is backed up by a lengthy policy paper with numerous references to external sources, but you have to look for it.
The Romney energy plan focuses mainly on oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy, which together meet 91% of current US primary energy demand and which the Department of Energy projects will still provide nearly 90% in 2020 under the policies in place today. You won’t find much on his campaign’s website about the new renewables that generated electricity equivalent to 2% of our energy use last year, beyond a critique of the administration’s investment in Solyndra and a commitment to R&D on new energy technologies.
Among the details of his plan are support for expanded offshore drilling, including areas such as offshore Virginia that were originally in the Obama administration’s early-2010 offshore development blueprint, along with a comprehensive assessment of US resources using current technology, rather than further extrapolations based on 1980s technology. Governor Romney proposes expanding energy cooperation with both Canada and Mexico and would approve the entire Keystone XL pipeline. His goal of attaining North American energy independence is aggressive, yet recent analysis by Citigroup puts it within the realm of possibility. It appears to be based on an assessment by Wood Mackenzie, a top-notch energy consultancy, indicating that US oil and natural gas liquids output could expand by 7.6 million barrels per day, with 6.7 million of that coming from federal lands and waters currently off-limits to development. That compares to US net petroleum imports of 8.5 million barrels per day in 2011.
Another aspect of the plan aimed at streamlining the permitting of energy projects could be just as useful for utility-scale renewable energy projects as for oil and gas exploration and production. Regulatory and permitting delays are among the key reasons it takes longer and costs more to develop crucial energy and infrastructure projects here than in many of the countries against which our competitive standing has been slipping. Governor Romney also proposes giving states greater control of permitting on their non-park federal lands. That could substantially increase energy access and output, especially in the west, where the federal government owns over 280 hundred million acres, or 37% of those 11 states, net of tribal lands.
There are also some missing elements. I would have liked to see more about how renewables fit into Governor Romney’s vision. He apparently supports the Renewable Fuels Standard but is silent about the increasingly urgent need to reform it. He is on record against the extension of the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), a 20-year old subsidy roughly equivalent to the current price of natural gas, yet misses the opportunity to explain how all types of energy would be treated under his proposal to reduce corporate income tax rates while broadening the tax base–policy-speak for closing loopholes and eliminating incentives. In last night’s debate he said, referring to the $2.8 billion in annual tax incentives for oil and gas identified by the Department of Energy, “… if we get that tax rate from 35 percent down to 25 percent, why that $2.8 billion is on the table. Of course it’s on the table. That’s probably not going to survive (if) you get that rate down to 25 percent.” I’d also like to hear more about how Governor Romney would address greenhouse gas emissions once the economy returns to stronger growth.
Superficially, much of the Romney energy agenda evokes a return to the pre-2008 status quo: heavy on oil, gas and coal, light on renewables, and largely ignoring climate change. I see it from a different perspective: When Barack Obama began running for President in 2007, the US was considered by many to be tapped out on conventional energy, with domestic oil and natural gas production exhibiting signs of deep and permanent decline. In that context it made sense to look beyond those resources to the potential of renewable energy and vehicle electrification, even if the transition involved would be lengthy. That approach also appeared synergistic with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a strategy was born. In the meantime, however, it turned out that US oil and gas were far from exhausted, and the most productive new energy technology of this decade wasn’t wind, solar or biofuels, but the combination of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling that has unlocked hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of shale gas and tens of billions of barrels of shale oil or “tight oil” resources. Since 2008 the expansion of shale gas drilling has added as much new US energy production as over 250,000 MW of wind turbines or solar panels–8x the wind and solar power added in the same interval. To the surprise of many, the big global energy opportunity of the 20-teens is US hydrocarbons. The Romney plan reflects the unexpected energy transformation we’re experiencing.
As in 2008, this blog isn’t in the business of endorsing candidates. Energy remains an issue that, like the Cold War, demands bi-partisan cooperation and some level of consistency from one administration or Congress to the next. However, that doesn’t prevent me from observing that the energy agendas of the two campaigns are not equally well-suited for a period of serious US fiscal constraints and shrinking federal discretionary expenditures, in which our energy security and economic growth will still depend largely on fossil fuels. In that context, it’s highly relevant that the “all of the above” credentials of one candidate depend on oil and gas outcomes that his policies did little to support. Of course, energy isn’t the only issue that matters, but then you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t think it was important.