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The Centrality of the Politics of Energy

The energy policy debate is growing in intensity and it is important to understand its fundamental causes. In my view, there are two main factors to understand: our addiction to energy and the concentration of economic and political power in the energy business.
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President Obama will soon face a day of reckoning with a decision on the Keystone Pipeline project. Here in New York, Governor Cuomo will soon face a decision on lifting the state's fracking moratorium. These are bound to be controversial decisions, with powerful forces lining up on opposite sides of these issues. The energy policy debate is growing in intensity and it is important to understand its fundamental causes. In my view, there are two main factors to understand: our addiction to energy and the concentration of economic and political power in the energy business.

Our addiction to energy is at the core of the many issues related to fossil fuel extraction, transport and import. Here in New York, we learned about the depth of that addiction after Hurricane Sandy. People lost access to the internet, heat, light, cable TV, refrigeration and other elements of daily life. Many moved into hotels and friends' homes until power was restored. Many reported a sense of dislocation and even depression due to their disconnection from social media and the internet. Many young people spend much of their time communicating in virtual spaces, and will not interact in real space without substantial preliminary discussion in the electronic world. These preferences are not pre-ordained; they are an expression of contemporary values. To most of us, life without energy and life off the grid is unimaginable. Sitting in your home, reading a book by candlelight is no longer acceptable or sufficient. Still, we have been told by local health professionals to expect a mini baby boom about nine months after Sandy, so it is reassuring to learn that our species is capable of coping under rough circumstances.

But baby boom aside, energy is central to our modern life style. In fact, most of the consumer items that transformed life in the past hundred years require energy: radios, autos, refrigeration, gas stoves, air conditioning and climate control, TV, cable, computers, stereos, the internet, DVDs, electronic games, the list goes on. Not only is this life style addictive (he said, listening to his home music system while typing on his laptop), it is seductive and has enormous political potency. People in other cultures see this stuff and want it. The importance of climate control, shelter, indoor plumbing and refrigeration are obvious and universal. No one wants to freeze to death, walk a mile for drinking water, or be unable to preserve food. The entertainment attractions of radio, movies and TV have been clear for many decades. What is new is the increased demand for instant information along with personal and social communication. The pre-electronic version of these resources: libraries, bookstores and cafes all continue to sustain, but must adapt to the force of these attractive and yes, addictive technologies. I am not arguing that all cultures will use this technology in the same way, but the mass attraction of energy-based technology is undeniable.

In the case of energy development here in America, a number of other values add to its importance and ultimately political potency. One value is the emphasis we place on free enterprise and private property. In the American value system: "If I own land and want to dig a gas well on it, I should be allowed to do that." "A man's home is his castle". Of course one impact of adhering to this value without policing is that the free use of one person's land can damage another person's land. More importantly, damage could be extended to collective goods such as groundwater resources.

Another expression of the free enterprise value is the effort to define the chemical composition of fracking fluid as "proprietary." It is difficult for a community to understand and effectively protect itself from the impact of an industrial process if it does not understand the chemicals that are used in that process. The definition of fracking fluid as an industrial secret is an indicator of the extreme importance of free enterprise in America. The freedom to pursue enterprise is given a higher priority than other rights and values - such as ecosystem preservation and even public health. Again, all of which provides an indication of how important energy is to our economy and to our politics.

Opponents of specific fossil fuel energy projects are careful to avoid discussing the benefits and use of energy and instead focus on local environmental impacts. Some raise issues of climate change as well. All of these efforts to stop energy projects are essentially rear-guard actions that have little impact in reducing the massive tidal wave of fossil fuel extraction efforts underway throughout the world. Perhaps fracking is discouraged in New York, but just over the border in Pennsylvania it is well underway. Stopping the Keystone pipeline might prevent the use of this fuel in the United States, but Canada will figure out another way to get it to market in Asia.

The need and market for fossil fuels is worldwide. The addiction to energy and the seductiveness of energy-based technology is contagious. Billions of people in the developing world see what the developed world has and want it. The increased visibility of the developed world's lifestyle is in part due to the internet and to the use of over five billion cell phones world-wide. All of this is creating a political pressure for energy development. It comes from those of us in the developed world addicted to all this stuff and determined to keep it and people in the developing world who see it and want it. Taking away these energy technologies from those who have it, and denying them to those who want it would destabilize world politics in fundamental and frightening ways.

When this demand side pressure is combined with the aggressive political posture and financial muscle of energy companies and their elected allies, it creates a political force of almost overwhelming impact. The energy companies and their allies have waged an extensive propaganda war against the renewable energy industry, focusing attention on subsidies and failures, such as Solyndra's bankruptcy, while ignoring tax expenditures such as the oil depletion allowance and failures like the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The disinformation campaign includes a massive effort to deny the facts and analysis of climate scientists.

With energy use exceeding 10 percent of our GDP, we should expect energy economics and investment will increase in political importance. The political battle to define the energy issue will continue. The fundamental importance of energy guarantees that interest groups will raise plenty of money and make plenty of noise all over our nation's Capitol.

While the lobbying and media war will continue, we can still make an effort to have a rational discussion of the future energy basis of our economy. Despite the propaganda, there are two fundamental facts that will not go away:

  1. Fossil fuels are finite. They will not run out in my life time, but they will get more difficult to extract from the earth, and increased long term scarcity added to the cost of transport will ensure higher prices.
  2. Fossil fuels cause climate change when they are burned and ecological damage when they are extracted from the ground.

While no one can predict the future, these two fundamental facts will motivate human ingenuity to develop better alternatives. Lower-cost, less-destructive forms of energy are desperately needed, and I will bet will be developed. Someone is going to be the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of renewable energy and will find a way to bring this form of energy to the marketplace. Then, and only then, will we see the end of the contentious energy politics we are now experiencing. Unfortunately for President Obama and Governor Cuomo, this won't happen before they are forced to decide on the Keystone Pipeline or the New York fracking moratorium.

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