Energy & Environment

Energy policy insanity, from both sides

WildEarth Guardians/LightHawk

I live in the resource colony of Wyoming, so when I woke up last week I heard Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) expounding on the nation’s energy policy. Said Enzi of President Obama: “He has no energy policy. He’s anti-energy and he’s doing everything he can to stop it and he’s successful on all the public lands.”

Lummis commented on the unusually low price of gasoline at the pump as follows: “It is — it is really low and it’s because it is a global market. But when we restrict the production of oil and gas from federal land, when we don’t allow things like the Keystone pipeline, we minimize our ability to make the current price of gasoline sustainable.” The Obama administration should be blamed, the narrative goes, for America’s faltering energy industry, even though American fossil fuel production is presently glutting markets on every hand.

Obama’s energy policy isn’t much more coherent. We’ve had “all of the above” as an energy goal (translation: whatever works). This year’s State of the Union address included the tidbit “today, America is No. 1 in oil and gas,” as if the federal government had much to do with it. Even as the president closes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, he proposes opening up offshore drilling off the southeast Atlantic coast as if we learned nothing from the BP Deep Horizon spill and its destruction of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.

{mosads}Despite a strong recognition that extracting reserves of underground carbon and burning them has led directly to record high temperatures in 14 of the 15 first years of this century, the Obama administration appears unwilling to choose a different future.

Domestic oil production is at record levels. Not because of the Obama administration’s policies, and certainly not because Obama’s policies have done much to obstruct the oil industry. The political rhetoric from both sides is false. The boom in oil production arises from a rapid expansion of new fracking methods in a market so free from regulation (for human health and safety, or otherwise) that production amounts to a free-for-all.

Here’s the reality. Federal lands contain sizable deposits of natural gas and coalbed methane, strong potential for renewable energy in places, but not much oil.

For decades, the oil and gas industry has virtually dictated the management of drilling on federal lands and minerals, and the Obama administration has made some minor incremental changes to this process that permit a little more public review, at least at the leasing stage. Regardless of your position on this incrementalist regulatory approach on public lands — too little, long overdue or government overreach — natural gas is in a bust cycle because excessive production during the George W. Bush administration glutted the market.

Meanwhile, the fracking boom, with its threat of groundwater contamination, is tapping newly discovered oil deposits almost entirely on private lands. There is precious little oversight from government agencies — from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the states or local county governments — over oil and gas drilling and development on private lands. The pace and scale of development is controlled by oil corporations, and if you don’t own the minerals under your land, your private property rights won’t even give you, as a landowner, much say in how this unfolds.

Oil companies don’t even have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, thanks to the infamous “Halliburton loophole” emplaced in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempts fracking operations from having to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. There’s simply no safety net, and no accountability for bad actors when things go wrong as they so often do.

As the North American fracking boom injects major new crude onto global markets, the Saudis have decided to keep supplying global oil markets with cheap Middle Eastern crude, pushing oil prices below $50 a barrel. If this trend continues, you can expect the North American fracking play to grind to a standstill. The blame (or credit, depending on your perspective) for the coming drilling shutdown goes not to Congress or the White House, but to the greed of the oil industry itself.

Neither party appears to have a coherent energy policy.

On the right, “drill, baby, drill” is producing booms and busts that are bad for the economy; toxic spills that threaten ecosystems and human health; fracking that potentially degrades irreplaceable supplies of clean water; global warming and extremes of climate; and the sprawl of oil and gas fields and strip mines that are destroying public lands and wildlife habitats.

On the left, “all of the above” is producing exactly the same result, with a side order of fuel-efficient cars and a few more renewable energy projects. Perhaps the problems are on a smaller scale and perhaps there is a little extra accountability, but the massive problems caused by our addiction to fossil fuels are hardly diminishing.

What is needed is a fundamental shift in energy policy, bold leadership to take our energy economy is a new direction. One day, the oil and gas and coal will inevitably run out, and we’ll have to shift away from fossil fuels. Why not do it today and start the benefits sooner? Clean air, uncontaminated waters, healthier wildlife populations and energy self-sufficiency on a local scale await this transition. Already, model homes have been developed that get all their electricity from the sun, with enough to spare to power an electric car.

When every home and office building is producing its own electricity, the pressure for more transmission lines, pipelines, oilfields, strip mines and other dangerous, dirty and politically controversial projects will ease considerably.

But achieving this future will require hard-nosed leadership. Today, both parties seem to prefer standing on the sidelines and looking to the fossil fuel industry to lead. Alcoholics Anonymous defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Let’s try something different on energy policy, for a change.

Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.

Tags Cynthia Lummis Energy policy fracking Hydraulic fracturing Mike Enzi Petroleum industry Wyoming

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