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The White House’s Energy-Dumb Policy and Tone-Deaf Politics?

March 30th, 2011 · 6 Comments

Later today, President Barack Obama will give a speech at Georgetown University focused on Energy Security.  Based on a press teleconference Tuesday afternoon with White House staff, the appropriate way to characterize what we heard is that the speech will promote energy dumb policy that is politically tone deaf to the need for real leadership and real information from the Oval Office.

While holding out hope that the President’s actual words will communicate something different, the information provided in that White House teleconference makes it quite clear that this “package” merits dismay about prospects that this White House will fight the anti-science syndrome suffering factions in Congress for meaningful solutions to America’s economic, energy, and environmental challenges.

The President’s Energy Security speech will highlight that we ‘see this movie every few years’ with an energy (oil) crisis (spiking of prices) that incentivizes politicians to come up with solutions for the politics of the moment when what we need to be is serious in the search for meaningful policy.  Sadly, the four elements outlined by White House staff along with the overly limited target to reduce oil imports by one-third over a decade don’t meet this energy analyst’s definition of serious and meaningful policy.

The four policy mechanisms to reduce oil imports are:

·         Increased domestic oil and gas production

·         Natural gas vehicles

·         Biofuels

·         Efficiency

In addition to these measures to “address” America’s oil dependency, the President will recommit to the “clean energy standard” including renewables (wind, solar, hydro, etc …), natural gas, “clean coal“, and nuclear power.

Embracing Drill Here, Drill Now?

The teleconference opened (and, it seems that the speech will open) with a call to accelerate and increase the production of U.S. oil and natural gas (from existing leases that are not being exploited) sadly reminiscent of the 2008 Republican National Convention’s “Drill, Baby, Drill” chant.  In the face of our nation’s challenges, it is as baseless as a core element of policy now as it was then.  Simply put, the United States represents over 20 percent of world oil demand (without even counting the oil attributable to U.S. imports from China and elsewhere) while domestic reserves are in the range of two percent of global reserves.  Accelerating production from that two percent increases future vulnerability as America’s share of global reserves falls even faster.  

The oil industry holds tens of millions of leases not producing. Massive supplies of american energy just waiting to be tapped.

Yes, that is a quote from a senior Obama White House official and not something from a Sarah Palin tweet. (And, here is the relevant WH blog post.)

Simply put, there is no credible study that concludes that domestic supply increases can make a significant dent in the global price of oil. With that in mind, as David Roberts of Grist put it in the first question of the call, “Why bring drilling forward as the top solution?”

There’s no evidence domestic supply from US could make a substantial dent in world oil prices or US imports. I understand the political imperative to open drilling. But why is this being framed as the number one solution for energy security?

Response: “It’s not the only solution. It’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

Natural Gas Vehicles

T Boone Picken’s snake oil salesmanship has clearly paid off. From Senator Reid to Republicans to Nancy Pelosi to President Obama, the economically, energy, and environmentally unsound concept of committing significant resources to creating another fossil foolish dependency in our transportation sector is among the most bipartisan of policy concepts outside, well, perhaps support to the military and a drive to cut the Federal government’s budgetary expenditures no matter the economic impacts on the nation.  Analysis shows that there are far more cost effective paths to cut U.S. oil demand, faster with much lower pollution impacts and with lower risk.   (For examples, see T. Boone’s Shell Game — one look at the numbers …)


Corn ethanol has been a fiscal boondoggle with limited (at best) energy benefits and poorly accounted for environmental (and other) costs).  Cellolosic ethanol is a carrot at the end of the stick promising to turn this around, creating a biofuel path forward to provide significant fuel while not competing with food resources.  The President will seek to give substance to that promise, with an announcement of four (proposed?) cellulosic ethanol refineries.    

Energy Efficiency

Let us be clear, demand destruction mainly through various forms of efficiency and substitution are the most viable path for making a serious dent in America’s oil dependency in a short period of time.  (Yes, we should Drill, Baby, Drill … the near bottomless well of negagallons.)  Sensible policy choices driven by serious leadership could put America on a path to cut oil demand five (+) percent per year even while growing the economy.

That sort of meaningfully aggressive path forward doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. (For now?)  Instead, it looks likely that President Obama will call for a commitment to continue from the new CAFE standards to continuing tightening of mileage performance requirements through the end of the decade.

Seemingly absent from the discussion

The President’s speech might (hopefully) provide greater reason for enthusiasm (even for grumbling acquiescence) than what was outlined by the White House staff.

Think about something for a moment, isn’t it astounding that electric vehicles – which were so prominent in the State of the Union address and other Obama initiatives – didn’t merit a mention by White House staff? (Note that the President will, after this speech, visit a site on with hybrid vehicles which could provide a venue for emphasizing the value of electric vehicles. That visit will occur Friday … April Fool’s Day.)

Also absent as pathways for reducing America’s dependence on oil:

  • A Steel Interstate of Electrified Rail (with moving significant cargo off trucks onto electrified rail), high-speed rail, and various electrified public transit (subways, trams, etc);
  • Greenways (and bicycles) and other ‘local’ individual transportation options;
  • ‘Location efficiency’ in mortgage financing and other ‘smart growth’ paths forward;
  • Home heating oil efficiency;
  • Requirement for a flex-fuel standard for all future light-duty vehicles;
  • Telecommuting, alternative work schedules, and other paths to enhance the work eperience for a good portion of Americans while cutting oil demand.
  • Etc …




What does this outline suggest?

The White House senior staff’s outline of the policy proposals suggest a very serious underpinning principle: that this speech addressing “Energy Security” and making a pretense of offer solutions to our challenges will offer nothing that has even the hint of any threat to “America’s Way of Life” of driving long distances, alone, in cars.

We’ve had the continued embracing of “clean coal“. We had the enthusiastic embracing of offshore drilling followed by a minor little BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  There is the unending embrace of natural gas even as “fracking” challenges and risks are coming into cleaner focus. And, an earthquake and tsunami seems to have driven a doubling-down on nuclear power even as Americans’ support for nuclear power is rapidly dwindling.  And, now, in the face of mounting oil prices amid ever-more substantive agreement that we face Peak Oil, we have an “Energy Security” set of proposals that double-down our dependence on liquid fuels rather than provide real solutions.

This speech offers up a Republican-lite “all of the above” under the rubric of “Energy Security” rather than serious policies that will drive down America’s fossil-foolish dependencies and reduce our national security / economic / other risks in the face of Peak Oil. This seems to be a pre-capitulation moment in the “let’s seek bipartisanship” above the advocacy of policies in the nation’s best interests. 


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Tags: Energy · environmental · President Barack Obama

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mark // Mar 30, 2011 at 7:21 am

    fifty five mile per hour speed limit.

  • 2 Lewis Larsen // Mar 30, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    In his speech, President Obama wants the US to lead the world in an array of innovative new energy technologies than can help reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil. He also feels strongly that nuclear power generation is a vital component of the overall US energy portfolio since, unlike fossil fuels, nuclear processes don’t release carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere and thus potentially help ameliorate global warming.

    His vision for the future of energy is all well and good. However, the potential risks underlying present-day fission technologies are all-too-apparent in the slowly unfolding horror at the failing Fukushima nuclear plant complex in Japan.

    That being the case, is there an alternative nuclear technology that could potentially be developed that might provide society with a much safer, cleaner, even ‘greener’ form of nuclear energy going forward into the future? Fortunately, such a possibility does exist and it is called Low Energy Nuclear Reactions or LENRs. Unlike fission and fusion processes which primarily involve what physicists call the ‘strong interaction,’ key aspects of LENRs depend upon the ‘weak interaction’ — this is exactly what makes them ‘green.’

    Importantly, LENRs are not ‘weak’ energetically — their reaction pathways can release just as much nuclear binding energy as fission and fusion reactions, but without emitting dangerous ‘hard’ neutron or gamma radiation and without producing large quantities of long-lived, hazardous radioactive wastes.

    While little-heralded in the media, the physics of LENRs has been unraveled and published in respectable peer-reviewed academic journals. Thus the basic science is essentially complete; what is left to accomplish is the key task of device engineering. While successful commercialization of LENR is not a certainty at this point, it holds extraordinary promise as a breakthrough energy technology and deserves a far higher level of government and private funding and R&D effort than it has received to date. To learn more about this technology and where it might fit in the global energy portfolio, a White Paper is available at

    Lewis Larsen, President and CEO, Lattice Energy LLC, Chicago, IL

  • 3 frflyer // Apr 1, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Lewis Larson
    I’m not expert on nuclear, but it seems that if nuclear is to be part of a new energy future, then at the very least, time should be taken to do it right and make it as safe as possible. I recently watched a video about LFTR Thorium reactors, which includes some history of nuclear energy, including a bit about how Thorium liquid fuel design was ignored back in the early 1950s, in favor of what we have now. Too bad. A few prototypes were built and run however so at least it’s not just theory. Which is not to imply anything about LENR that you wrote about. Either way, it will take time. Build prototypes (LFTR designs have changed since the 50s), which will take a decade and then probably another decade to get up to any kind of scale building utility plants.

    In the meantime, nature isn’t waiting, so we should build as much renewables as we can.

  • 4 frflyer // Apr 1, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Here’s that video.

    “Energy From Thorium: A Nuclear Waste Burning Liquid Salt Thorium Reactor”

  • 5 President’s Energy Security Path Will Solve Our Problems // Apr 1, 2011 at 3:20 am

    […] The White House’s Energy-Dumb Policy and Tone-Deaf Politics? […]

  • 6 arlene davis // Apr 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

    why not wind,solar power,instead of gas cars,if we heat our homes.what about cars