By Jim Snyder - 12/08/09 11:00 AM EST
At the offices of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), an old headline, blown up to poster size, is kept as a reminder that some energy goals are easier set than met.
“Solar Power Seen Meeting 20 Percent of Need by 2000,” it states. The article, which ran in The Wall Street Journal in 1978, wasn’t particularly prescient.
Solar advocates say it’s not the sun’s fault. They say the lack of political support has undermined the industry.
But the former Republican aides who run IER, a small think tank funded in part by donations from energy companies, argue that basic thermodynamics are to blame. It is just easier to squeeze power out of coal and oil than it is to tap the power of the sun or the velocity of the wind. The former aides are eager to retrieve the 31-year-old headline to highlight for a reporter why they are skeptical of some of the predictions about green jobs that have emerged as a central issue in the climate change debate.
“You can’t wish these things happen,” says Thomas Pyle, a former energy policy aide to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Pyle is now IER’s president.
IER sees a bit of wishful thinking in the idea that policymakers can cut carbon dioxide emissions without harming the economy. Carbon is released when fossil fuels are burned. But those energy sources have provided businesses and households with relatively cheap power for generations.
The success of the bill in Congress and of negotiations at the United Nations climate conference that starts this week in Copenhagen, Denmark, likely depend on whether policymakers buy into the idea that it is possible to both cut carbon dioxide emissions and create jobs.
As climate change was becoming the central issue in energy policy debates, following the Democratic takeover of Congress, IER underwent a makeover to try to become more relevant in political circles. Founded in Houston, the group was known for well-researched analyses that had little impact.
“I oftentimes saw their products. I’d say, ‘Damn, that looks good. Wish I had time to read it,’ ” says Daniel Kish, IER’s senior vice president for policy.
Kish came to Washington around the time the Journal article came out. For much of the time since, he has helped direct GOP energy policy as a Senate and House aide, most recently as the chief of staff on the House Natural Resources Committee when former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), something of a boogeyman to the environmental community, was chairman.
With a relatively modest budget of only a few million dollars, IER spokesman Patrick Creighton said, the group picks its battles.
For example, Kish and Pyle say they aren’t challenging the science behind global warming, though a new, often-updated website has a permanent tab that lists other causes as to why the issue has such prominence in political debate: the need for newspapers to sell advertisements; the inducements to academics of the $4.4 billion the government spends on climate research each year; the desire of politicians to solve crises.
But for the most part, IER and its advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance, has made green jobs its principal target.
When President Barack Obama toured a new solar plant in Florida to showcase how clean energy can be an economic generator as well, IER responded like a campaign war room would in an election.
Construction of the plant employed 400 workers, advocates noted. But IER linked in an e-mail to a local newspaper’s article that reported the site would employ just one full-time engineer and six groundskeepers on an ongoing basis.
“Are green jobs pet rocks or are they something real that can be sustained?” asks Kish.
The IER e-mail also noted that many of the components used to build the solar facility were manufactured outside of the United States. Climate bill advocates acknowledge that clean energy components are manufactured overseas, but maintain that a cap-and-trade system would spur more domestic development.
In focusing only on the economics of the climate debate, IER has still managed to generate plenty of controversy.
The institute commissioned and promoted a study by King Juan Carlos University in Spain that said that country’s efforts to create green jobs have come with a high cost. It found that for every green job created, two jobs were lost by the inefficient allocation of resources.
Republicans like House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (Texas) and Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (Okla.) have used the study to attack Democratic efforts on climate change.
Energy and environmental debates are often animated, and the Spanish study has prompted harsh criticism from the administration and climate bill advocates.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a part of the Energy Department, issued an unusual retort, criticizing the underlying methodology. “The primary conclusion made by the authors … is not supported by their work,” NREL said.
Two top officials from Spain sent a letter to House members calling the study “deeply flawed.”
The Center for American Progress (CAP) said the study’s author was a “virtually unknown figure” in academic circles.
If there is an antithesis to IER, it’s CAP, a large, well-funded liberal think tank that is a big backer of the new green economy. It released a study done by the University of Massachusetts that found the level of investment from the $787 billion stimulus package and from the House climate bill authored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would create 1.7 million jobs each year.
Asked to respond to the Spanish study, Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the CAP Action Fund, noted IER’s corporate backing and said the study had “little credibility.”
Solar energy isn’t responsible for producing 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States, Weiss said, because President Ronald Reagan not only removed the solar panels that President Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House, but Reagan “starved” the Energy Department’s renewable budget.
Weiss said coal and oil are cheaper than renewable energy only because they don’t bear the burden of their own pollution. A cap-and-trade bill would put a price on carbon and show the true costs of the energy sources, Weiss believes.
“Coal is completely under-priced,” he said.
Kish calls the cap-and-trade approach a “Tonya Harding energy policy.”
“In other words, you go out and break your opponent’s legs so they can’t function economically so that your performance has to be less than good as well,” he said.
He says he doesn’t believe the costs for “experiments” to advance the technology should be borne by everyone.
“You can’t tell people this is a free lunch if you really want to solve this,” Kish said. “Let’s have an adult discussion here. If we all agree that our goal is this, what’s it really going to cost us to do it?”