"All of the Above" Is No Energy Policy

Several times recently, we've heard this argument: When it comes to securing America's energy future, we need "all of the above" -- coal, oil, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, and so on.

That is a not an energy policy; it's a cop-out. It's how elected officials dodge hard choices about our energy security. It's how they avoid political backlash from energy interests, especially those with money and clout such as coal, oil and nuclear.

"All of the above" is how elected officials minimize their personal political risk by shifting it onto the shoulders of the American people, who have to live with the consequences.

With the memory still fresh from the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with new oil slicks appearing in the Gulf from another spill this month, and with Japan's nuclear disaster leaking radioactivity into the ocean and atmosphere, you'd think policy makers would be reconsidering "all of the above".

But President Obama is sticking to his position that nuclear energy is a necessary part of America's energy future and deserves heavy federal subsidies. Pointing to the BP disaster, the President told a CBS affiliate "all energy sources have their downside".

In an interview with the conservative blog Red County, House Speaker John Boehner described the GOP's "American Energy Initiative" this way:

It's our all-of-the-above energy policy. Let's have more oil and gas exploration, let's use most of the royalties to help develop alternative sources of energy, but it's clean coal technology, it's nuclear energy.

The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. "Doc" Hastings (R-WA), told Fox News:

I'm in favor of all of the above. I'm in favor of nuclear and hydro and wind and solar, but at the end of the day, we need to recognize the resources that we have and we need to pursue that.

Last week as the new oil spill was discovered off Louisiana's coast, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced his department had approved another permit for deepwater oil and gas drilling and opened another 7,400 acres in Wyoming to coal mining. As he put it:

There's no place in the country that captures this all-of-the-above approach quite like Wyoming...We need to recognize that coal is a very abundant resource in the United States. Coal will be part of the energy portfolio in American for the future.

In London, the Guardian published an op-ed by author George Monbiot (The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order) who argued, like President Obama, that all energy involves risks. "Energy is like medicine," Monbiot wrote. "If there are no side effects, the chances are that it doesn't work."

Even analysts at the Heritage Foundation object to the wisdom of this "everybody wins" approach. As Nicolas Loris of the Foundation wrote in a post late last year:

(The) "all of the above" energy approach...guarantees handouts and subsidies for all energy sources to make everyone happy. In other words, all the special interests win and the consumer loses.

There are variations to "all of the above". One is, "There is no silver bullet" to solve our energy problems. Another is, "Everything should be on the table". Let's review these cop-out conclusions:

First, while it's true there is no silver bullet to meet our energy needs, there definitely are a number of duds. If we really want energy security, economic stability and some protection against climate change, then we need to take the duds off the table as rapidly as possible.

Second, let's face it: In a rational national energy policy there will be winners and losers. The winners will be those energy technologies that allow us to thrive in a carbon-constrained, post-peak-oil economy. The losers will be the carbon-intensive fuels and energy resources whose risks in this new world outweigh their benefits.

Third, it is an insult to our intelligence to put resources such as solar and wind energy in the same risk category as coal, oil and nuclear power. The downsides of renewable technologies - for example, intermittency and the tradeoffs between solar farms and wildlife habitat -- are far less consequential and easier to avoid than the risks of oil, coal and nukes.

What risks? Those who are regular readers of this blog are well aware of them, so I won't elaborate. I'll just use some key words:

Nuclear power: radioactive contamination, nuclear weapons proliferation, tempting terrorist targets, finite uranium supplies, big water consumption, endless cradle-to-grave taxpayer subsidies (aka corporate welfare and socialized energy production), high construction costs, long construction periods, high investment risks, long-lasting radioactive wastes, no permanent storage. (The Associated Press reports the United States -- which uses more nuclear power than any other nation -- now has nearly 72,000 tons of nuclear wastes spread across 31 states with no permanent place to store them. Temporary storage facilities are at full capacity.)

Oil: In addition to peak oil, wars, military bases in Islamic countries, world demand exceeding production, more wars, environmental accidents, carbon emissions, extortion by unfriendly suppliers, more money for terrorists, supply disruptions, price spikes, yet more wars, repeated economic recessions and billions in taxpayer subsidies the industry doesn't need.

Coal: Mountain top removal, ruined rivers, mercury pollution, childhood asthma, trapped minors, black lung disease, safety violations, unpaid fines, avalanches of coal ash, slurry ponds, water contamination, unsustainable carbon emissions, billions in taxpayer subsidies to chase "clean coal".

Liquids from coal, and oil from shale and tar sands: Water competition with farms and cities, low net energy benefits, high prices, lots more carbon emissions. Oh, and more government subsidies.

Natural Gas: Secret fracking agents, groundwater contamination, unacceptable waste water, volatile prices. Better than coal or nuclear and a good transition fuel IF the industry solves these problems.

One reason these fuels remain on the table is that we don't fully consider their risks. The traditional energy industries are nimble in hopping aboard any available bandwagon to hitch a ride to the future. Nuclear power is relatively carbon free; don't worry about the highly toxic wastes. Liquids from coal, tar sands and oil from shale will reduce oil imports; don't worry about the carbon emissions or water consumption. If oil is a liability, we'll drill more at home. Never mind that easy supplies are gone and more domestic production will have little impact on oil prices.

Here's what we should be doing:

First, we should publicly assess the full life-cycle benefits and risks of each significant energy option -- fossil, nuclear and renewable.

Second, we should create a performance standard for federal energy subsidies, defining limits on each resource's net impacts on water, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, public health and national security and job creation. No energy technology or resource should be supported by the federal government if it fails to meet the performance standard and can be replaced by less-damaging options.

Third, we need a comprehensive national energy policy that guides us to a clean, stable and prosperous future. That means on-ramps for truly clean energy and off-ramps for the rest. As others and I have written before, presidents have been required by law since 1977 to develop comprehensive national energy policy plans and submit them to Congress every two years. The last to comply was President Bill Clinton in 1998. It's President Obama's turn.

Whether or not politicians and policy-makers like it, they need to make choices. Some will be hard. As I said, there will be winners and losers, as there are in every major economic transition. But there will be far fewer losers if King Coal and Big Oil know their time has passed and begin investing in -- and training their workers for -- a clean energy economy.

As for the rest of us? After Salazar's announcement of new coal leases in Wyoming, a news story quoted one observer saying, "The president knows his electoral future hangs on coal." It's up to us to let national leaders know their electoral futures actually hang on making hard but necessary energy choices. Why? Because our future depends not on "all of the above", but on leaving the riskiest and most harmful fuels behind.