State of the Union - Bush's Energy Vision Thing

Our President doesn’t surprise me very often. In the main, I find his behavior highly predictable. Nevertheless, his remarks made in his State of the Union address suggesting a number of changes in national energy policy did give me a bit of a start.

Obviously, the mention of global climate change as a problem to be solved was entirely contrary to Bush’s previous statements on the subject and to the Administration’s consistent policy of suppressing allusions to global warming in official documents authored by government scientists. One imagines that Bush’s concession in this regard must be profoundly embarrassing to stalwart defenders such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity who have steadfastly maintained that the theory behind global warming is “junk science” just like Darwinian evolution. What are they to make of this seeming reversal? How are they to respond? Holman Jenkins, writing in today’s Wallstreet Journal, courageously maintains the junk science position even in the face of the President’s apparent defection, perhaps indicating the likeliest response among the pundits of the Right.

But beyond the predictable perturbation in the ranks of President’s supporters arising from this one intemperate remark, lies a larger uncertainty, and one struggles to grasp its implications. Is the President serious about carbon caps, or will he seek voluntary compliance on the part of the American electorate and the business community? One suspects the latter because it is in character, but since we are still lacking firm and detailed policy initiatives on the matter from this Administration, there’s no knowing.

The several references to alternative fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, as well as the mention of unorthodox feedstocks such as wood chips and forest wastes, could have emanated from any of a number of left leaning think tanks with an involvement in energy policy. The sole allusion to clean coal would not be apt to pass muster with such groups, however. Nor would the expression of support for more nuclear power.

The President mentioned plug-in hybrids in a positive light, and affirmed his administration’s support for further research on high output batteries to equip such vehicles. Again, not what one might expect.

Most astonishing was the President’s apparent support for a revival of the CAFÉ fuel standards, that oft-derided artifact of the Carter years. How could he, I found myself muttering as the President spoke.

The President did insist on more domestic oil exploration, which he had earlier advanced as the means for achieving energy independence, but he made no mention of the Alaska Wildlife Preserve which remains a sensitive topic. Interestingly, he said nothing whatsoever about the hydrogen economy or fuel cells. I guess that’s been quietly put aside.

Finally, there was the statement about enlarging the Federal Strategic Reserve, which Bush can do unilaterally. This statement sent a shock through the oil industry resulting in $5 increase in the price of crude. He might as well have declared war on Iran.

I must admit that I immediately suspected some sort of strategic feint—a masterful pre-emption of liberal energy positions to be followed by two years of obstruction and foot dragging. But, if so, why? Wouldn’t it be better to feint in regard to Iraq whose mismanagement has already cost Bush most of his support and threatens the future supremacy of the Republican Party?

I do not consider myself a political commentator, and I am even less inclined to construct psychological profiles of the President, but I can’t keep from wondering what this really means, and I struggle to arrive at plausible explanations. After all, this is a man who very recently appointed Lee Raymond, ex-CEO of Exxon-Mobil, peak oil and global warming debunker, and forthright foe of renewable energy, to head an energy policy group within the Administration. Raymond, at least in unguarded moments, would surely scoff at most of the proposal’s in Bush’s State of the Union, and, furthermore, Raymond’s own positions are entirely consistent with those enunciated by Bush in earlier statements.

Whatever one thinks of Bush’s proposals, either individually or in toto, it is difficult to conceive of him performing the hard work of policy analysis and of crafting practical initiatives for implementation and supporting legislation. He’s just not gaited for that sort of activity. But perhaps that’s to be left to Lee Raymond and perhaps to Dick Cheney as well. We’ll soon know.

But let’s for a moment put the cavils aside and try to take the proposals at face value. It’s a useful exercise because, quite apart from the President’s own questionable sincerity in supporting them, they are in line with so-called progressive energy policies and will likely emerge in one form or another in the next Administration, whether it is headed by John McCain or by some Democrat. And they are just as likely to be seriously pursued by the Democratic Congress.

So what’s our take on the package?

All societies, by virtue of their institutions and the character and social habits of their members, face a limited range of options in responding to material crises such as the diminution of primary energy sources and the devastation of the environments they occupy. They face further limitations in respect to the physical feasibility of various technological responses to the crises confronting them.

Implicit in President Bush’s remarks is a top down, command economy approach to energy, an approach that is ideologically foreign to his administration, and which has never been successfully applied to problems of this magnitude in the entire history of the United States. As indicated in my last editorial, the United States has always had underlying governmental energy policies, but they have tended to abet private initiatives rather than to set the overall course for private development. America’s prior energy revolutions have been entrepreneurial in the extreme, and its revolutionaries have frequently done battle successfully with incumbent energy barons. The successful war of the American automobile and petroleum industries against the street car lines and the electrical utilities is but one example of a violent passage from one energy regime to another.

Whether one likes it or not, America is at base a market economy, with both the strengths and weaknesses inherent in such an entity. It is probably constitutionally incapable of executing momentous and abrupt industrial changes typical of command economies. For instance, the U.S. could never have put in place the cataclysmic five year plans launched by Joseph Stalin to industrialize Soviet Russia, and, which, incidentally, worked, right wing propaganda notwithstanding, albeit at the cost of millions of human lives.

In other words, I don’t think the federal government can manage far reaching changes in energy usage, and even if it could, I cannot imagine someone with President Bush’s managerial style captaining the transition.

So far as the technological feasibility of the President’s individual energy recommendations, nearly all are in doubt at the current states of development of basic science and of plant engineering. Corn based ethanol cannot emerge as a replacement fuel for gasoline, biodiesel derived from oilseeds and soy beans cannot replace diesel, and truly clean coal electrical generation utilizing gasification and carbon sequestration cannot compete with dirty coal. Cellulosic ethanol, to which the President alluded, remains experimental. Commercial production of ethanol from cellulose is almost nil, and the economics are unproven for all extant technologies, despite decades of research and development. To be sure, there is a tremendous amount of research and experimentation taking place in the biofuels arena, much of which is covered in this journal, and I am certain that the economics of producing biofuels will grow steadily more attractive over time. But I am just as certain that biofuels will never be as inexpensive in absolute terms as were fossil fuels in their heyday.

Very interestingly, the President said absolutely nothing regarding unconventional fossil fuels such as heavy oil, oil shale, and methane hydrates, and nothing in respect to coal derived synfuels. These resources, while posing enormous problems with respect to carbon abatement, are almost certainly closer to market than biofuels when it comes to replacing petroleum—methane hydrates excepted. There is a brutal realism implicit in the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels that one would have expected in a conservative president—the same kind of brutal realism that lay behind the clamor for Alaskan oil on protected lands. Why didn’t the President attempt to make a case for unconventional fossil fuels? I’m frankly puzzled.

At this point I must allude to couple of recent studies produced by one Robert Hirsch and sponsored by the D.O.E., studies with which Bush certainly should familiarize himself. Hirsch maintains that very well funded crash programs must be initiated immediately toward the mitigation of oil peaking, and that unless all available resources, but primarily unconventional fossil fuels, are exploited on a massive scale, that the U.S. is facing profound shortages and significant economic disruptions. Hirsch’s views are not unorthodox among energy analysts, but they were not echoed in the President’s address which expressed no real sense of urgency.

Lessening dependence on foreign oil by reducing the fuel consumption of individual vehicles is certainly possible with current technology, which is not now the case for the replacement of petroleum products with biofuels. But the fact is that American auto manufacturers do not want to make a revolution, and are exceedingly poor candidates for revolutionaries. They want continuity with the past. And why not? The past was wonderful. The present, marked by increasing consolidation among older automotive firms worldwide, the precipitate decline of American manufacturers, and the appearance of unwanted interlopers from China and India, is increasingly nightmarish. Why would you want to accelerate the trends that have proven so harmful, if you were one of the remaining Big Two?

I might add that the President gave very little evidence of having acquainted himself with any of the great range of alternative fuel offerings that are beginning to be available, including butanol and other heavy alcohols, DME, bio-based petroleum analogs, bio-methane, and methane from coal, among others. Only those technologies that have become buzzwords like cellulosic ethanol were mentioned. This is a grave deficiency because the limitations of the older biofuels are already becoming manifest and the need for fresh approaches is becoming steadily more apparent. Unfortunately, the President gave no word of how to stimulate fresh approaches.

The fact is that most of the private investment going to alternative fuels is being funneled into traditional plants that cannot anchor a radically new energy regime. Most of the real experimenters are starved for funding.

The threat here is that nothing substantial will be done to foster new technologies of real promise until the peak of oil production is long past and the situation is desperate. That would expose the nation to years of privation and economic dislocation because the infrastructure to replace petroleum even in part would take years to construct best case and would cost trillions of dollars, money that would be difficult to raise in an economic downturn occasioned by energy shortages.

In any case, the real entrepreneurs should probably avoid both the government and the venture community and should strive to build local and niche markets for their fuels, markets which reflect long term changes in energy usage rather than the status quo. They need to adopt radically different marketing and distribution tactics than the current energy giants, though precisely what those will be is difficult to say at present. The current emphasis on the virtuousness of alternative fuels is probably not a viable long term marketing strategy, however. Selling new technology is ultimately about selling excitement, not austerity.

Finally, it is important to distinguish between providing abundant liquid fuels for industry and transportation and reducing greenhouse emissions. The two goals are often, but not necessarily mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the amount of liquid fuels of any sort used in transportation is going to have to decline a great deal in order to control greenhouse emissions, and, it is to be hoped, reverse the current upward trend. That in turn will require far ranging changes in transportation, housing, and society that will not leave existing structures intact anymore than the first automotive revolution left dirt horse tracks and hitching posts intact.

Of course, none of this was touched upon in the President’s address and no real sea changes were signaled. And more’s the pity.

I will return to this topic in a further editorial. Then back to straight reporting for what I hope is a lengthy interval.