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It Takes a Crisis: Climate Change and Energy Policy

Peter Grossman's picture
Associate Professor Butler University
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  • Jun 8, 2013 1:30 am GMT

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energy crisis

Some environmentalists and alternative energy advocates have expressed disappointment with the Obama administration. Though the president has talked about the need for action on climate change and has touted a national Clean Energy Standard, there has not been a broad new legislative initiative for either.

Said the climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “There needs to be a public plan. There needs to be a schedule — what’s going to get done and when.”

But if history is any guide, the critics wanting bold action are wasting their…well, energy.  With respect to energy policy, major initiatives have required a perceived crisis either ongoing or recently past. Major climate legislation, meanwhile, has never gotten anywhere. Without a crisis, proposed energy and climate legislation has typically gone into committee to die.  

Of course for those who regard climate change as potentially catastrophic, there is a crisis—it has been ongoing for decades—and clean energy is thought of as a solution.  But energy and climate change are not perceived as dire problems by the general public.  While polls show that a majority of Americans believe that anthropogenic global warming is a real problem and the price of gasoline is forever on the public’s mind, both are far down the list of the key issues of the day.   Jobs and the economy are overwhelmingly the concerns of the electorate. There is no demand for the government to “do something” about energy or climate change, especially if it will be costly to voters.

This is in sharp contrast to early 1974 when the energy crisis was overwhelmingly the number one issue of the day.  That was true again in 1979 and there were sharp spikes in public attention to energy in 1990, 2005, and 2007.  Out of these crises came the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (1975); the Synthetic Fuels Corporation (and several other major pieces of legislation) in 1980; the National Energy Policy Act (1992); the Energy Policy Act (2005); and the Energy Independence and Security Act (2007).

The Obama administration has used a different sort of crisis, the financial crisis of 2008 along with the stimulus bill of 2009, to fund its energy program, often using authority from the energy bills of 2005 and 2007.  But efforts at a combined energy/climate bill—most notably the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (known as the Waxman-Markey bill for its two main sponsors)—failed.

With some of the authority utilized for energy policy expiring, the administration has sought to use ongoing discretionary authority through the Environmental Protection Agency to further its goals but these efforts will inevitably be limited. There does not seem to be any prospect of major legislative action any time soon.  With the U.S. about to be a net exporter of natural gas, with temperatures plateauing, with gasoline prices relatively stable, it is hard to see anything that would vault energy and climate to the top of the government’s agenda.

I should add that I am not by any means hoping for a crisis. Besides the obvious (albeit temporary) damage that a crisis inflicts on the overall economy, as I discuss at length in my new book, U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure (Cambridge University Press), such crisis-driven legislation has generally resulted in one costly failure after another.

Of course, a crisis is by definition something unanticipated, so please do not take the above as a prediction. Without a crisis, however, those who seek vast new programs of clean and green are battling history.

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Bob Lee's picture
Bob Lee on Jun 7, 2013

Peter, I agree that significant policy change does often require a crisis before it moves forward. But even slow change would be welcome and there are areas where this can be affetced. I am thinking primarily of a program that pushes the reduction of coal use at an even faster rate than what we see today. The problem is this will have a detrimental effect on the jobs available in coal producing regions. Without complimentary programs to shift the workforce in a new direction, the only thing citizens see is the loss of their livelihood.

If we look at the increase in the workforces of Pennsylvania and North Dakota due to the boom in shale resource plays, we can see a direct benefit from new industries. A look at the number of gas wells drilled on the Pennsylvania side of its border with West Virginia, you will note that the regulatory environment in WV is stymieing the shift of work from coal centered to nartural gas centered. Regulatory changes will spur growth in WV and allow for dvelopment of shale gas reserves that can assit in shifting the fuel from power plants from coal to natural gas. 

The demand for energy is unlikely to decrease without a significant event so why not focus on changing the fuel that supplies the power?


Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Jun 8, 2013

Without a crisis, however, those who seek vast new programs of clean and green are battling history.”

Yes, willful stupidity otherwise known as head in the sand is rampant!

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