Energy Politics of Republicrats and Democans

By Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize)

Washington, D.C., 9 September 2012 — If you are looking for direction on what energy policy and politics in the U.S. might look like after the November election, don’t expect much guidance from the two party platforms. Nor have the contenders had much of substance to say on the topic.

Given the other problems that face the nation – from a struggling economy to international threats in Iran and Syria to an impending fiscal cliff early in 2013 – it’s probably a good thing that energy isn’t a front-burner issue. Despite some of the rhetoric from the two contending political parties, the U.S. is doing reasonably well on the energy front and it looks like most voters don’t view energy issues and related environmental disputes with much interest. The terms “energy” and “environment” don’t even show up on the list of popular terms at the website of the Gallup polling firm.

The Democratic platform adopted this month in Charlotte, N.C., touts the administration’s “All-of-the-Above Energy Policy” and brags, “In the last four years, President Obama and the Democratic Party have taken concrete steps to make us more energy independent.” This is an empty rhetorical claim, of course, but, hey, it’s a political year. The party says it supports developing all forms of energy and the platform liberally throws around the party’s standard warm-and-fuzzy terms: clean, sustainable, responsible. And, that’s all, folks.

Then there is the GOP big book of promises, the Republican platform adopted in Tampa late in August, a forward looking document dedicated to the 18th Century framers of the U.S. Constitution.  The Republicans can’t be accused of imitation, since their platform was adopted a week before the Democrats’ version. Maybe it’s the Democrats who copied the GOP. In any case, the title for the Republican tome on energy is “Domestic Energy Independence: An ‘All of the Above’ Energy Policy.” Hmm?

The GOP platform is far more specific than the rival document, with a lot of criticism of the Democrats for “picking winners and losers” in energy markets, a shot at the Democrats’ devotion to wind and sun (and an implicit reference to Solyndra elsewhere made specific). But when parsed for what it really means in policy terms, there just isn’t much more bone and muscle in the GOP approach than in the less detailed Democratic document.

Jason Grumet, a Washington energy policy wonk once considered for an Obama administration position, told the Washington Post, “There’s actually quite a bit of overlap between Democratic and Republican policy right now. Both have the ‘all of above’ mantra. Both are supporting production increases and speaking proudly about the strength of the American energy resource. Both have suggested a strong desire for an increase in energy self-sufficiency.”

Ken Cohen, ExxonMobil blogger, commented that “it’s been interesting to see that in their platforms’ energy planks, both the Democrats and the Republicans call for what each party describes as an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy – a phrase intended to include everything from oil and natural gas to nuclear, coal, hydropower, and renewables. The specific details of their plans may differ, but the broad language is very similar.”

Cohen cited a caveat from his boss, CEO Rex Tillerson, “In pursuing the ‘all-out, all-of-the-above’ strategy, we need to welcome every voice from every sector of the energy industry as we develop all economically competitive sources.” The point, said Cohen is the phrase “economically competitive.”

That’s a message to both Republicans and Democrats, as both parties are complicit in U.S. industrial policy (a term Republicans loath with their lips but embrace with their votes) with regard to energy. In order to get government subsidies for their favorite uneconomic renewables, key Democrats go along with subsidies for uneconomic nuclear technology they don’t like. Key GOP legislators, in order to get subsidies for their favored uneconomic nuclear technology, grudgingly accept programs to boost uneconomic renewables. That may be what they really mean by “all of the above.”

For those who are interested in getting deep into the weeds on the details of the two party platforms on energy, take a look at the excellent work from Resources for the Future.

Also, some words about global warming, an issue on which President Obama badly stumped his political big toe early in his administration. Polling shows this is a subject that has largely vanished from public view. The candidates have not only put it on the back burner, they have turned off the gas. But if you a really interested (you have my condolences), ScienceDebate.org queried the candidates and elicited some commentary and Columbia Journalism Review’s science journalism column “The Observatory” has a good discussion.

On climate change and presidential politics, I turn to Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry, who is one of my dependable guides through the jungle of climate science. She comments, “On election date in Nov., however, I suspect that not a single vote will be cast that is based primarily on either candidate’s stance on climate change.”