We need ‘all of the above’ strategy for future of US energy production

There’s a constructive role for the federal government to play in expanding and diversifying America’s energy sources, but it is not the role we are seeing from the Obama administration. The Solyndra scandal is the most obvious example of an energy policy that has gone off course, but it is far from the only one. We need to move forward with an “all of the above” approach in which every potential contributor to solving the nation’s energy challenges is given the chance to succeed.

Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar panel maker that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, serves as the poster child of the administration’s failing energy policies — and its failing economic policies as well. From almost every angle, the Solyndra deal looks shady, and federal investigators will continue to pursue a number of questions. 

Why was the loan guarantee granted even after several officials who reviewed the application expressed doubts about the company? Was it rushed out the door to coincide with a high-profile public relations push coordinated out of the West Wing of the White House? Was the deal structured to benefit a major Obama supporter? These and other questions need to be answered in order to get the loan guarantee program back on track. 

Solyndra shouldn’t have happened. I helped write the bill that created the loan guarantee program, and we made sure it had a number of built-in safeguards to protect taxpayers, but they appear to have been sidestepped or completely ignored in this case. This program deserves to continue, as there is a role for federal support of worthwhile emerging technologies and the companies working on them. However, we have to be considerably more careful whenever Washington puts its citizens’ money on the line.  

The federal government should encourage new energy supplies, but that doesn’t mean it should stand in the way of existing ones. Wishful thinking is not an energy source, and we need to be realistic about the task of replacing the oil that fuels most of our transportation and the coal that produces nearly half of our electricity. In particular, we need to be realistic about the time it will take to develop alternatives and scale them up so they can make a significant contribution to the nation’s growing need for affordable energy. 

The transition will take decades — attempts to force it along much sooner with measures like cap-and-trade energy taxes or renewable electricity mandates would only serve to raise energy prices and destroy American jobs. 

In the meantime, we must recognize that conventional energy sources, which have served this country well for decades, are still going to be needed for the foreseeable future. Rather than prematurely dismissing oil as “yesterday’s energy” and threatening it with tax increases — as the president did in his last State of the Union address — we should be opening up access to domestic reserves that are currently restricted, as well as greenlighting the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project that would bring more Canadian crude to American refineries. 

And rather than discouraging the use of coal with a host of costly new Environmental Protection Agency regulations — just one of which, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, will force the closure of two coal-fired power plants and several coal mines in Texas, costing 500 jobs — we need to allow continued use of this abundant and domestic source of affordable electricity.   

Ironically, the administration’s regulatory crackdown is also stifling the kind of green-energy breakthroughs one would expect the president to support. For example, the EPA’s convoluted new boiler regulations would actually discourage the use of biomass and waste materials as energy sources. But if companies want to develop the means to use material such as wood waste and construction debris as energy sources for boilers safely and cleanly — saving landfill space and supplanting some fossil fuel use — why should Washington serve as an impediment? These and other private sector solutions should not be strangled by federal bureaucratic red tape.  

An all-of-the-above energy strategy requires government to take a limited role encouraging emerging technologies with loan guarantees and other incentives, but to do so effectively. More importantly, it requires Washington to provide a reasonable regulatory environment as the private sector develops both traditional and new energy sources and technologies.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is failing us on both counts. 

Barton serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.