Energy policy will decide the 2014 election cycle

Energy policy is a Rubik’s cube, with immense, often complex implications on global financial markets, geopolitics, technological innovation, labor markets, and the environment.  Over the next few years, government rulings on several key fronts in the energy market will largely shape the landscape of energy resources available to the global economy. Therefore, political candidate positions on energy policy will ultimately tip the scales of national elections in both 2014 and 2016, given the importance of energy policy in itself as well as its relationship with other areas of central voter importance (e.g. foreign policy, economic policy, and labor policy). 

Forecasted in 1976 by Amory Lovins’ “Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable Peace”, the fork-in-the-mountain America faces today offers two vastly different options for political figures to choose: a soft energy path and a hard energy path.  “Fork-in-the-mountain” in the sense that both options include adversity and significant obstacles.  "Soft energy," which includes solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal, and other renewable sources, offers a path that emphasizes energy efficiency as the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to anthropogenic climate change.  “Hard energy,” while availing the world to robust, yet increasingly difficult to access sources of fossil fuels or nuclear fission, requires technologies that are capital-intensive and environmentally taxing.  Lovins explained that the most profound difference between the soft and hard paths, the difference that ultimately distinguishes them, is their different socio-political impact.  As Lovins says, both paths entail social change, "but the kinds of social change for a hard path are apt to be less pleasant, less plausible, less compatible with social diversity and freedom of choice, and less consistent with traditional values than are the social changes which could make a soft path work.”

 Republicans heavily favor the development of America's existing fossil fuel deposits with a strong emphasis on increased production of oil, natural gas, and coal.  Furthermore, most Republicans favor the opening up of more federal lands and offshore sites for exploration and production.  Conversely, many Democrats propose an “all of the above” energy policy, which incorporates some level of fossil fuel development but uses incentives (both positive and negative) set by the federal government  to enhance both energy efficiency and develop the scale and effectiveness of renewable sources.  This approach essentially marries the two paths described by Lovins, taking both the high-road and the low-road; it’s a win no matter which path, so bet on both.   

As in many circumstances, with opportunity comes risk, but mitigating these risks enables the nation to move forward on issues currently stymied by political intransigence: hydraulic fracturing, offshore drilling, renewable energy subsidies, deep sea drilling, and pollution control measures such as cap-and-trade.  Tackling any one of these ultimately determines how we efficiently complete the Rubik’s cube of our broader energy policy.  This puzzle will rest in the hands of political representatives, meaning each candidate will be judged for their future role in shaping the energy policies of the United States, and in bringing us towards a more secure, more independent, and more prosperous nation.

Resnik is a law student at Vermont Law School and has worked in both public and private arenas, focusing on government relations, domestic public policy issues, as well as federal and state energy and environmental regulation. Contact: bennettresnik@vermontlaw.edu