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Does the US need a national energy policy?


I was recently asked the question – and thought it deserves some unpacking. I think the underlying challenge to a having a stable and coherent grand energy strategy is the lack of coherence about what we want our future to look like, and what factors are actually influencing it. If we want a future reality, we need to be informed and have no illusions about what our current reality is – and understand the transition needed to get from ‘now’ to ‘desired future’. To this end, I again state that we need a ‘national energy dialogue’ to go along with a national energy policy. Whether it comes from grassroots or top down, the dialogue needs to take place so people understand what the choices are, and what the factors are guiding those choices – choices about where the energy we use comes from, it’s environmental and economic impact, as well as how it shapes the future of our country and world.

This sounds like a lot of happy, fluffy, ideal future talk, but it’s a vital part to making decisions. As it stands, America seems to want to do well on the test, but it’s not going to class and doing the readings at night; so when exam-day comes, all that is written under the policy of “what should US energy policy be?” is some conviction or opinion-driven feeling about how things should be, rather than something planned and deliberated, acknowledging various difficulties and necessary maneuvers to overcome them.

I agree with Robert Rapier, as well as this “the CEO of American Electric Power, [who] recently called for a comprehensive, multi-decade policy, citing the power sector’s desire for regulatory certainty” – multi-decade, comprehensive, absolutely. The obvious uncertainty and flux of the coming decades doesn’t mean we should plan less, but plan more and more carefully work out contingencies. There are so many factors affecting our current period, particularly in light of energy’s inherently international implications. “Calamity cannot be avoided by trying to run away from it.”

Also, I agree with Joel B. Brown; the BP example serves well, as does Fukushima – both things that improved regulations and more diligent, proactive management could have mitigated. Even the International Energy Agency’s recent report, entitled Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas, acknowledges shale gas and tight oil will require most sound of practices to effectively deal with growing energy demands. The IEA is looking ahead; the US should welcome their advice.

America needs desperately to uncouple political polarization and energy policy – which takes me back to my opening point of a national energy dialogue. Just like the US getting its credit rating reduced due to the uncertainty generated by the near-disaster on raising the national debt limit, this quarrelsomeness affects energy as well. Whatever the outcome, that a decision like what to do about Keystone XL is unfolding the way it has indicates a lack of a solid plan, no less a lack of coherent public opinion.

The more time without a plan, the more time wasted… and from a competition-based vantage, the more time competitors gain ground over the US’s lack of coherence. From the perspective that sees how important consistent, well thought out planning in terms of research and development, botched regulatory practices, and future energy markets, the more time wasted means the less future advantage the US could be putting itself in as time passes.

If we kept up the intensified focus that was in the US after the 1970′s energy shocks, we could have been in a different position now, forty years later. Yet now, again, new technology creates a buffer zone, potentially impeding the sense of urgency.

I would suggest a national energy policy understands this bit of history, and aims to position itself to a more advantageous future position in light of these many elements.

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jun 13, 2012

I agree with most everything you wrote so well, except “If we kept up the intensified focus that was in the US after the 1970′s energy shocks, we could have been in a different position now, forty years later.”

As an oldster, I am very impressed with the many good people and good ideas making large inroads in new energy and environment issues. There are so many new nuclear “generations,” solar strategies, fossil agendas, wind debates, electric cars, bio breakthroughs it is clear there is an intense growth in just the dialog you rightly advocate. This came about from the energy shocks of 40 years ago, and the determination of many environmental scientists. At that time, the Cold War, rivers on fire and acid rain, and lime green polyester suits with white vinyl shoes got the most attention. We are now in an era rich with opportunity and challenge.

And making it all work for the next generation and the world they choose to build will require exactly what you advocate; open minds and civil dialog. Best of luck.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jun 14, 2012

Concerning the “lack of coherence” regarding a desired future, I don’t see how there will ever be agreement on this.  The desirability of a particular vision of the future encompasses so many other issues besides energy, and the situation will only become more complicated with the continuing advance of globalization combined with the Internet.

Another way to put this: we no longer live in a modern era.  We live instead in a postmodern age, where the lack of a unified “metanarrative” is seen as a feature, not a bug.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Jun 14, 2012

With those things in mind – what would you do or advocate for in terms of US energy policy? I don’t disagree that there is validity in what you say, but, what does that argument translate into? Not having a national energy policy? Sort of just letting things fall where they may?

I ask earnestly, because I’m curious to offer this question to other people as well. If you were in some ‘position of power’, (use that phrase while acknowledging that it is somewhat arbitrary or theoretical; no person can dictate a nations policy – at least, in a variant of democracy) — what would you do?

Japan’s governance is asked this same question, post-Fukushima. Poland is asked this question now regarding whether or not to proceed with hydraulic fracturing. Germany has huge issues to deal with, attempting to be nuclear free by 2022, managing solar setbacks, and dealing with the EU mess outside of domestic energy needs. Pakistan’s load-shedding issues need desperate attention. What about for the US?

How does the US understand its role  in the global energy market; how does it improve energy security,  how does it compete in renewables, and exploit its vast shale gas resource? How does it set regulatory precedent – or will it try to avoid that responsibility? How does the US address the coming issues of the thawing Arctic? What should the US’s choice be when it comes to an economic atmosphere that favors business success vs. one that favors other stakeholders?  How do we deal with regulatory uncertainty – are policies going to change every four years? That affects a great deal, including investment, research, development, contracts, etc. And yes, how does the US mitigate other relevant issues – water, food production, ecological capital, clean air?

Again, I see the complications that are inherent in this topic. “a particular vision of the future encompasses so many other issues besides energy” – that’s absolutely the case. It is multi-faceted, and multi-disciplinary… (and simply ‘not easy’). But what is the strategy going to be, what is the plan for the future?

I am not aiming to be alarmist, I just, once again, am bringing up these issues because they are at play.

I don’t see much coherence in how the US government approaches any of this – and yes, there is a different between federal policy and state level policy. States are dealing with regulation issues frequently. But the easy example federally is Keystone XL; it is handled awkwardly in a long, drawn out process of interests that are obviously have not yet come to fruition in terms of choices. Also, I’m not advocating that the federal US government “declare” what a policy should be – but having a plan, a vision for the future, would be good. There’s some talk recently about ‘all of the above’, but obviously it’s more of a campaign related slogan than something of national significance. Energy is a sort of back-seat issue in America, still domineered by other interests, other more accessible topics.

This is, in my opinion, a failure in energy education – and it’s something that needs to change. If the US wants to do more than be at the whims of ‘globalization’, or really, other country’s (or non-state actors’) endeavors, it should have some sort of an aim. And if America is going to do that whilst remaining an actually democratic country, people ought to be talking about this, researching, wondering, asking politicians tough questions, watching other countries trial and errors, watching the legistlation, so on and so forth.

You could even say, they ought to be opening their computers to The Energy Collective every day.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Jun 14, 2012

Rick – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I acknowledge what you say, and agree we are in an era rich with opportunity and challenge. One of my professors would say “We really are in exciting times!” – particularly after talking about something particularly daunting.It was said with a slight bit of sarcasm and veiled sense of “This is a HUGE problem!”, but a very serious optimism and understanding of potential.

“And making it all work for the next generation and the world they choose to build will require exactly what you advocate; open minds and civil dialog. Best of luck.”

Thanks, luck and open minds will be needed – and as much help and guidance from those who have been walking the path before ‘my’ generation as possible.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jun 15, 2012


I can only speak as an engineer, which implicitly means I’d never get very far as a politician.

We are in agreement that much of the trouble stems from a failure in energy education.  Unfortunately, I’d guess that 98.37% of all students will find a short course in energy fundamentals to be unbearably boring.

That being said, I’d emphasize a couple of principles that address certain misconceptions that seem to infect most discussions of the subject.

1) Never use the word ‘solution’ in the context of energy policy.  Ever.  There are no solutions, only tradeoffs (typically really bad ones) that can only be mitigated to some degree.

2) When it comes to energy, the concept of a fuel’s energy density becomes paramount and eventually trumps economics.  The reason for this is that energy density is rooted in the laws of thermodynamics, which dictate the upper limits of the energy yield we can expect from any particular fuel.  Bill McKibben whines incessantly that when it comes to environmental issues and climate change we are fighting against physics and chemistry; he ignores the fact that it is because of our understanding of physics and chemistry that we can generate the massive amounts of energy that we use.  We use fossil fuels and enriched uranium for precisely this reason.  Your fellow Energy Collective poster Rod Adams could explain this better than me.

I tend to be cynical about the efficacy of any discussions given the realities of our postmodern era.  The world is becoming more fragmented, not less.

Full disclosure I probably should mention:  I’m also a Cub fan.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 15, 2012

I duno.  When I look at Germany’s seemingly irrational energy policy, I think that our incoherence patchwork of policies is better that what they have.

It’s clear that when the government tries to pick winners and loosers, lobbying can trump science, and that’s a bad thing (I blame lobbying by the fossil fuel industry for much of our nuclear-phobia, which is clearly out of proportion to the actual fatality count of historic nuclear accidents).

But I think the government must support an evolution towards energy sustainability.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jun 15, 2012

Thanks for asking the question. Like the others, I don’t have a “solution.” But I can share a perspective.

When I was a kid my grandfather watched a TV show, “Green Acres,” and laughed. As a city boomer, I watched the show, “Beverly Hillbillies,” and laughed. Then I joined the back to the land movement and I only laugh at myself.

Perhaps a good example of what is happening in some rural areas is my recent neighbor, retired from 3M. He built a duck pond, with expensive ducks. The bald eagles consider it a lunch room. He said, “They ought to make it illegal to move here.” My wife and I laugh. But we don’t laugh how deer to chipmunks eat our garden.

So we went from going to zoos and seeing caged animals, to being caged animals. The regrowth of nature is amazing and intimidating. They allow shooting wolves again, but cougars are coming back and they prosecuted a farmer for shooting one. I now understand how wolves roamed the streets of Rome when it fell.

So I use most of my strength in summer replacing the rotten wood structures with concrete, stone and steel. We found amazing success with biochar manufactured black garden dirt. The current project is for a greenhouse/solarium. But I’m starting to think like old Uncle Joe (from “Petticoat Junction”) and instead make it the Shady Rest Hotel.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jun 15, 2012

Thanks to Jim Baird above for providing an illustration of my Point #1.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Jun 16, 2012

I definitely do not envy Germany’s situation. It is both potentially untenable logistically and in terms of public opinion, no less significantly more difficult than whatever the US is trying to do. I mentioned Germany and Japan because they are obvious examples of problematic countries who do not have the choices and options the US has.

But I should hope the fortune of having many options does not lead us to complacency in trying to plan for the best future.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Jun 16, 2012

I agree about point 1), in that there isn’t an end point where everything will be ‘settled’; it’s a process. And within that process there are tradeoffs, choices, and things to mitigate. And about point 2), that is what I see as well – the notions about economics, or environmental concerned, is habitually trumped by what actually providing the most ‘density’, and thereby capacity, if you will.

As far as your cynicism , I cannot say I’m unfamiliar with it, both within others and personally. I don’t profess to have an answer to any of these things, yet, but what I want to know is if there is any semblance of creating a plan or managing things in a constructive, non-reactive way…. or, if the ultimate, best-game-plan is going to be a matter of adaptability. I’ve heard it said before that the time of ideology is over, and straight pragmatism is the new ideology

That seems reasonable enough to me. But the question still remains how does a governing body work within that situation to produce policy and deal with supplying energy to the people it governs? That problem still remains, albeit a more purely political and human/societal issue, rather than strictly the science behind development, production, and the like.

The US has particular assets and liabilities, strengths and weaknesses. How it manages them has an impact domestically and globally. Yet that is said with an acknowledgement that, “how [the US] manages [its energy situation]” is somewhat of an arbitrary concept, because the de facto influencer in the US’s energy situation is not, I’d say, the actual government or policy makers. They have some influence, particularly in terms of regulatory measures and subsidization, but can the public sector have significant impact on energy? In some countries it seems so. But obvious worldwide, not so much — look at Rio20+, and the lack of significant production that is coming from international ‘discussion’ about climate change.

I ask the question, Does the US need a national energy policy?, with a sincere interest in understanding the underlying assumptions that comes with how that sentence is framed. Another question is “how significant would a US national energy policy be”, or, “what are the significant factors the US’s current/future energy situation/s?”

With all of this in mind, I have chosen to study energy rather than go deeply into politics or political science for a particular reason, and it’s related to point 2)…

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Jun 16, 2012

Thanks for sharing, those are useful items to consider.

Jesse Parent's picture

Thank Jesse for the Post!

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