Energy Policy:

Let the Conversation Begin

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Headlines proclaimed the news that automobile drivers already knew: Crude oil and gasoline prices marched ever higher as spring began. In fact, crude oil set a record of “highest March price ever.”

This unwelcome news – ahead of the summer driving season and threatening a fragile economic recovery – led the White House to shift its focus to energy.

In a speech at Georgetown University on March 30, President Barack Obama outlined the latest iteration of his administration’s energy policy. The headline target was a call to reduce oil imports, which in 2008 were approximately 11 million barrels a day, by one-third by 2025.

“I set this goal knowing that we’re still going to have to import some oil,” the president said. “It will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time, until we’ve gotten alternative energy strategies fully in force.

“And when it comes to the oil we import from other nations, obviously we’ve got to look at neighbors like Canada and Mexico that are stable and steady and reliable sources,” Obama said. “We also have to look at other countries like Brazil.

“But our best opportunities to enhance our energy security can be found in our own backyard,” the president continued, “… because we boast one critical, renewable resource that the rest of the world can’t match: American ingenuity. American ingenuity, American know-how.”

Astute observers noted the economic slump already had reduced oil imports, but at least rhetorically, the president seemed to edge closer to an “all of the above” energy strategy. He urged increased domestic oil and natural gas development, expanding alternative fuels, and enhancing energy efficiency.

But while the president’s objective of reducing oil imports by one-third is “doable,” it is a “false goal,” as Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said to Gwen Ifill on the PBS Newshour.

“One of the things that the energy wonks always struggle with is that the speechwriters get the last word,” Grumet said. “And describing the goal as reducing foreign oil is a very good approach to galvanize pollsters and voters.”

“But it’s not really the right goal,” Grumet continued. “And having a somewhat false goal, I think, does undermine our policy.”

Boosting domestic oil and natural gas production is an important goal, according to Barry Russell, president and CEO of The Independent Petroleum Association of America. But in a written statement issued after the president’s speech he said, “actions speak louder than words.”

“Despite the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration, the federal government continues to add new burdens to the federal oil and natural gas leasing and permitting process,” Russell said. “Those new burdens overlay a process that has become laden with opportunities to delay or deny access and production of America’s resources.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress sprang into action.

In the Senate there was a flurry of legislation introduced, ranging from bills to expand offshore exploration to the creation of a “National Energy Security Council” to move the country to oil independence. In the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, legislators were working to define the “clean energy standard” that President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address.

In the House of Representatives, Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chair of the Natural Resources committee introduced three bills to expand offshore exploration and production, as part of the Republican majority’s American Energy Initiative.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” observed Otto von Bismark. From these disparate bills, and others not yet introduced, our legislative sausage grinder will ideally produce a set of coherent policies that Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the White House can all agree on.

But is the issue really that we haven’t found the “right” energy policy?

“We’re not lacking for energy plans,” Grumet said during his interview with Gwen Ifill. “What we have been lacking is the ability to create goals that have real consensus, to have metrics, so we can figure out whether we’re making progress or not, and have real accountability.

“It’s keeping track of those plans over time that our democracy is not really well-designed for.”

As I wrote on this page in January, “Another round of energy legislation isn’t the answer. Instead, we need a national dialogue that forges consensus on the energy future we are trying to build.”

What do you think the nation’s energy goals should be?

In an op-ed published by Politico after the president’s speech, noted energy author Robert Bryce proposed one that I like: “Pledge to make energy as cheap, abundant and reliable as possible.”

Unfortunately, as the president correctly noted, the United States doesn’t talk about energy until there is a crisis and politicians are under pressure to act. And when they do act, the proposed solutions reflect their constituencies and ideological bent. It’s also true that there are structural issues in our democracy that make sustained progress difficult.

But I don’t think the task is impossible. And AAPG members are uniquely qualified to contribute to a national discussion on energy.

How could you personally facilitate this conversation within your sphere of influence?

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