Democrats and Energy Policy

An Energy Epiphany

I have often thought that if all domestic oil production and refining ceased in this country for a month, we would see an energy epiphany in the U.S. the likes of which we have never seen. Such an event would really drive home our dependence on petroleum products.

In fact, this essay started as an introduction to a book review I am writing on Amanda Little’s book Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy. The book described Little as an award winning columnist on green politics. Prior to writing Power Trip, her views on the energy industry were typical of those of most liberal environmentalists. But her eyes were opened wide during the major 2003 blackout in the Northeast. Suddenly she saw society without the dirty power that fellow environmentalists fight so hard to stop — and she recognized that life wouldn’t be all roses if environmentalists get all of their wishes:

“There was virtually nothing in my office—my body included—that wasn’t there because of fossil fuels… I had understood this intellectually before—that the energy landscape encompasses not just our endless acres of oil fields, coal mines, gas stations, and highways…. What I hadn’t fully managed to grasp was the intimate and invisible omnipresence of fossil fuels in my own life…. I also realized that this thing I thought was a four-letter word (oil) was actually the source of many creature comforts I use and love—and many survival tools I need. It seemed almost miraculous. Never had I so fully grasped the immense versatility of fossil fuels on a personal level and their greater relevance in the economy at large.”

The belief that Little describes — oil is a four-letter word — seems to be thoroughly embedded among most Democrats because they fail to recognize the role it plays in their lives. And if they fail to recognize oil’s role, how can they expect to pass sensible energy policies?

The Democratic Disconnect

As I read Little’s book, I kept coming back to the question “Why is is that so many Democrats seem to be so disconnected from the role energy plays in our lives?” And I ask that question as someone whose political views generally fall on the Democratic side of the spectrum. While I tend to stay away from discussing politics in general in this column, due to my energy views some readers come away with the impression that I am a Right Wing Conservative. That is a very inaccurate view. In fact, I dislike both extremes of the political spectrum. I don’t care for the shrill political views of Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher.

Without getting into detailed position statements on universal health care, abortion rights, Creationism in schools, environmental protection, etc. – let me just say that my political views are left of center (but not too far left). I would describe myself as “mostly” a Democrat. But my views on energy are completely at odds with the mainstream views of the Democratic party.

The reason for this is that I believe the left – and especially the far left – is disconnected and naive when it comes to energy. They display the kind of thinking Amanda Little displayed before her epiphany. For example, I love the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I think Jon is incredibly insightful and intelligent. But when Jon wades into energy discussions, he often ends up spreading the kind of misinformation that leads to liberal naivety on energy issues. The view always seems to be that the oil companies are the enemy of the people, even though they depend on oil for so many modern conveniences.

Imagining Life without Oil

Leonardo di Caprio provides a perfect example of this kind of mentality. He has devoted a lot of passion and energy into educating people on the dangers of our fossil fuel dependence (and has also done a lot of good work fighting against species extinction). He really seems to try to practice what he preaches. He seems to strive in his personal life to keep his energy usage low. I admire him for all of the above. But I don’t think he appreciates just how much his life is still enabled by what the oil companies do. (For instance, di Caprio was in Rome when Obama won the presidency; a trip that was enabled by petroleum). When he recently campaigned for an end to oil company subsidies, I thought “He doesn’t even know what these subsidies are, and he really has no idea of what his life would be like without the oil he takes for granted.”

If di Caprio suddenly found himself without gasoline or jet fuel, he would have his own energy epiphany. I think Democrats would be in less of a hurry to marginalize our domestic oil industry if they saw a glimpse of life without the oil companies. Al Gore would have to cancel his lectures on the dangers of climate change as he found himself unable to fly to his venues. The ethanol industry would shut down as they no longer had natural gas to run their plants. Large scale farming activity would cease. Instead of cleaner, greener, and cheaper, you would see people start to starve  as the food distribution systems broke down.

President Obama’s Flip-Flops

The disconnect in the Democratic party extends right to the top. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama preached on the dangers of our fossil fuel dependence. I felt at the time many of his ideas were those of an idealistic Democratic candidate with yet another distorted view of the oil industry. Once he was in office, he started to make decisions indicative of someone coming to grips with the reality of our energy consumption. But he has been extremely indecisive. Apparently realizing that renewable energy won’t be replacing oil any time soon, he first came to the conclusion that we need more domestic production. Following the BP spill, he decided we needed a moratorium. Now we are back to needing rapid domestic development. He wants to end incentives for domestic oil production, and then almost immediately says we need more incentives for oil production.

Here is the dilemma he faces. Candidate Obama can rail against the oil companies all he wants to score cheap political points. President Obama may continue to rail against the oil companies for political benefit, but privately he knows that marginalizing domestic oil companies does nothing to lessen our dependence on oil. It simply increases our dependence on imported oil and weakens the country. In a tight supply/demand environment, incremental supplies could make a big price impact, and to the extent that those supplies are domestic that money circulates within the U.S. economy. If he fails to work to develop domestic supplies, people will point fingers at him and blame him for driving up gas prices (which they are already doing).

Democrats in the Oil Business

I think the core of the disconnect is that so few Democrats are involved in the business of producing and refining oil. Speaking from experience, people on the left make up a small minority of oil company employees. There is thus a long-standing hostile relationship between Democrats and conservative fossil energy companies, and I think this has led to a total disconnect of what the industry does and how it operates.

I would bet that an anti-oil activist like Tyson Slocum has never spent any time up close studying the industry he criticizes so fiercely. Thus, he and many other Democrats have a ‘comic book’ view of how the industry works. I have no doubt that if you embedded Slocum, Al Gore, or Leonardo di Caprio inside ExxonMobil for one year, they would come away preaching “Guys, we have had this all wrong” — and not because of Stockholm syndrome. (That is not to suggest that they wouldn’t still believe we need to move away from oil, but they would see why their ideas of how to do that have been completely wrong).

What Are They Thinking?

I understand the thinking of the Democrats. Many of them believe that the only thing really standing between the status quo and a clean energy economy are the traditional power providers, their lobbyists, and their allies in Congress. Therefore, if they pass legislation to marginalize our major providers of energy in this country (oil companies, coal companies, nuclear power companies), their share of energy production will decline and green power will save the day. I see that viewpoint again and again. It is so far out of touch with reality, and yet at the heart of the divide between the left and right on energy issues.

I believe part of the issue is also that many Democrats think the use of fossil energy is morally wrong, and therefore the industries that profit from that are to be ostracized and punished. That’s why you see liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress expressing outrage over oil company tax deductions, but silent over Apple’s or GE’s tax deductions. The issue isn’t really taxes. They want an end to the consumption of dirty fossil energy, and they therefore try to stir up anger toward the oil companies. The casualty of their tactics is that they decrease America’s average energy IQ with misinformation campaigns, and they make it much more difficult to have rational energy policy discussions.

Be Careful What You Wish For

My ultimate goals are not much different from theirs: Declining dependence on fossil fuels, no oil spills or nuclear accidents, cleaner air and water, etc. But by failing to understand the real nature of our energy usage (how much petroleum we use, where we use it, why we use it, etc.) they pursue strategies that will push us toward a result other than the one they were hoping to achieve.

I am not suggesting that our dependence on fossil energy is a good thing. We have made many choices spanning decades that have put us in a vulnerable position. I believe we must adopt policies that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But doing so requires a real understanding of the magnitude and nature of that dependence. Because they fail to do so, I often see Democrats pushing for solutions that will:

1. Simply maintain our dependence by striving to keep oil prices low (e.g., tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserves).

2. Maintain our dependence, but shift that dependence to imports to a greater extent (e.g., adopting policies that weaken our domestic oil companies but do nothing to their foreign competitors).

Of Course It’s Not Only Democrats

In closing, I would be remiss not to mention that Democrats don’t hold a monopoly on simplistic thinking about our energy issues. There are plenty on the right who believe that the only reason energy independence eludes us is that we haven’t developed our own resources to the fullest extent. Or that the trillion barrels of oil shale in Utah and Colorado could make us energy independent, if not for those meddling environmentalists. I get e-mails from people all the time asking if the Bakken formation could make us energy independent. Those are naive views as well that really don’t display an appreciation for our level of oil consumption.

Compromise Around Reality

In order to address our energy future in a way that makes long-term sense, both sides of the political spectrum are going to have to abandon naive views. Otherwise, the left is going to continue to ostracize the oil companies while they hold out for vast quantities of renewable energy that can’t possibly replace our current levels of oil consumption. The right is going to hold out for increased domestic production to replace our current levels of consumption. And as they bicker, we dig ourselves into a deeper hole.

But there is much room for compromise if both sides develop a more realistic view of our energy policies. For instance, I have made suggestions that draw ideas from both sides that would help both on the supply and demand side. For example, expand drilling, but earmark the proceeds of those lease sales and royalties for programs that will reduce oil consumption (via conservation measures and targeted alternative energy programs).

Both sides have ideas that can be part of a good overall energy policy, but taken as a whole neither side will solve this issue. And if they don’t, the winners will be oil exporters, who will step into that supply void, happy to sell us oil at $200 a barrel.