The Single Minded Stupidity of Energy Policy

By Mac Johnson, Energy Tribune

The biggest problem in energy supplies today is that politicians think it is a problem with a solution. And by that I mean they seem to think it has exactly one solution.

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We can’t drill in the Arctic because the solution is conservation. We can’t build nuclear because the solution is solar. Offshore is not needed because the solution is biofuel. Natural gas, clean coal, coastal wind, oil shales, tar sands, tidal turbines, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric – all in turn are argued against, because something better, or bigger, or cleaner, or cheaper, or more philosophically correct can be supported instead.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our current energy “shortage” is the sheer number of options we have available to us – none of which is apparently the one perfect solution, and so all of which are delayed and obstructed.

America’s leaders and wouldbe leaders are pursuing our future energy policy with all the finesse of a child who believes the game must be won by a single home run. Who needs base hits? Because of this, America may be the first country in history to run out of energy due to too many options.

A rational approach to energy would be simple: it’s good, so let’s have more of it. But then nobody would be able to take credit for making the grand choice, would they? So instead we have an interminable debate over what best form energy should take.

That we have a small number of people making the choice at all is an even bigger problem. If energy were treated as an economic issue, rather than a political or moral one, the exact modality used to power any region or industry would be left to those actually using the energy. This is known as “the free market.” In its place, a system of energy evolves that is allocation by grand national committee.

The most frustrating thing about a democracy in which government plays a huge role in energy policy is that no portion of the solution can proceed until a majority in Congress says it’s OK. So little is done.

If market forces were given more weight, we could drill for oil wherever it’s found. We could build a wind farm wherever it’s windy. We could ship natural gas wherever it’s needed. We could install solar panels wherever they are profitable, guaranteeing them a deserved place on calculators and satellites.

Instead, we sit famished at a feast in which some group has a grievance against every possible dish. And since we can’t just eat individually, we starve as a group. Imagine Thanksgiving being run the same way: We can only eat cranberry sauce! No, the solution is stuffing! But turkey has always been the mainstay. Are you mad? Turkey causes global napping we’ll all die if we don’t transition to tofurkey. And we certainly can’t baste our way out of this! Meanwhile, the food gets colder and colder and the guests get hungrier and hungrier. Eventually some will tire of the whole thing and just outsource the meal to the Chinese restaurant down the road.

Beyond the egotistical need of politicians to be great deciders, there’s a second reason markets are currently restricted: many would be deeply unhappy with the obvious winners chosen by the marketplace.

Biofuels, solar, and the like are all touted as ways to save us from high oil prices. But even with oil at $120, these technologies cannot compete without steep subsidies. The supporters and beneficiaries of these technologies may feed the public a line about fighting high oil prices, but they know better than anyone how cheap oil is, compared to their alleged bargains.

It’s true that there is not enough oil in the Arctic to solve all our energy needs. There is not enough gas off the coast of Florida to solve all our energy needs. Neither can our needs be filled with nuclear or coal or wind alone. And yet all these facts are beside the point.

The solution to our energy needs is to stop looking for a grand solution to our energy needs. If we just let the market find many small solutions to many small problems, we will find the larger problem brought down to size.

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