Senate: Don’t waste a perfectly good oil crisis
Unless he’s careful, history will remember Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as “Retro Joe,” the accidental power broker in the United States Senate who put America’s economy into reverse, stalled us in the tumultuous fossil energy era, and plunged us further into catastrophic climate change.
The Democrats’ necessary swing vote in the Senate, Manchin is most responsible for holding up President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill and its $555 billion investment in carbon-free energy. Already approved by the House, the bill would be Congress’s first substantive response to climate change in the 30 years since President George H. W. Bush obligated the United States to help the world avoid “dangerous human interference with the climate system.”
Manchin says he’s willing to vote for a climate bill, but with a few caveats. He favors an “all of the above” energy policy that includes fossil fuels as well as carbon-free renewable energy. Citing Europe’s dependence on Russian oil, Manchin wants the bill to allocate money to fossil-fuel infrastructure. “You want to be Europe?” he told CNN. “You can’t leave yourself vulnerable. The U.S. has to be energy independent.”
However, we might as well be Europe because any country’s oil crisis is everyone’s in the global economy. A hard truth is that the United States will be vulnerable to oil crises until world petroleum use becomes insignificant. Another hard truth is that our record gasoline prices are a crisis we can’t afford to waste. We should know by now that more oil production only sets us up for more oil crises. The path to energy independence leads in only one direction, to renewable, domestic, zero-carbon fuels.
Manchin must acknowledge this and a few other realities as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as well as the Senate Democrats’ critical swing vote.
First, a combination of factors has led to high gas prices. Only one of them — our embargo of Russian oil — is connected with Biden, and then only because of overwhelming public support to stop helping Russian President Vladimir Putin pay for his war on Ukraine.
Second, we can’t lower prices at the pump by making more gasoline. The law of supply and demand determines prices in the global oil market. If other oil-producing nations object to us putting more oil into the marketplace, they can cut back their production to keep prices high.
Third, unless we want far more catastrophic floods, fires, droughts and rising seas, we must begin drawing down the production and consumption of all fossil fuels. Scientists warned several years ago that if we want to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the preferred international goal of the Paris climate accord, the “vast majority” of the world’s proved oil, natural gas and coal reserves must remain in the ground.
Fourth, fossil energy infrastructure is a high-risk investment today, even for the federal government. For example, new pipelines would result in one of two bad futures. Pipelines last at least 50 years. Investors want to make back their money and earn profits, so they’ll want pipelines to keep operating until they no longer can. In one scenario, called “lock-in,” investors would prevail to keep us producing and consuming oil and gas long past the time we should get to net-zero carbon emissions. In the second scenario, we leave investments stranded by abandoning or underutilizing infrastructure before the end of its useful life.
Finally, the oil boom days are over. As industry analyst Raymond James told CNN recently, oil production is “never going to grow at a rapid rate ever again. The days of U.S. oil supply growing double digits on a sustainable basis, those years are gone.”
Insofar as the federal government is involved in energy infrastructure, Congress should be directing resources to a post-oil economy. Because transportation is America’s biggest carbon polluter and oil is transportation’s biggest fuel, the Biden administration’s proposals regarding electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure should be one of Congress’s highest priorities.
Biden’s agenda includes the “Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan,” which identifies what we must do to make EVs 50 percent of vehicle sales by 2030. It includes ubiquitous EV charging stations, alternative fuel corridors, battery manufacturing with domestic materials, rare-mineral recycling, a second-use battery market and domestic industries and jobs for each of these purposes.
The fossil-energy industry argues it can be part of a zero-carbon future by trapping its carbon pollution and burying it or making new products. But that would do nothing to eliminate pollution in fossil-fuel value chains. And the expense of carbon capture, if it were plausible, would make fossil fuels and carbon products uncompetitive with naturally clean alternatives.
The oil industry also argues the clean-energy transition will kill millions of jobs. But researchers have found that clean-energy investments create more jobs than fossil fuels. Solar-electric technologies create 1.5 times as many jobs as the same investment in fossil fuels, building efficiency creates 2.8 times as many jobs, mass transit creates 1.4 times as many, as well as investments in building efficiency create 2.8 times as many jobs per dollar. Restoring the ecosystems destroyed or damaged by fossil fuel production, transportation, and consumption creates 3.7 times as many jobs per dollar as oil and gas production.
In short, it’s time to begin saying goodbye to the fossil energy era. It has been very good to the industrial world if we don’t count foreign intrigues, oil wars, economic recessions, military spending to protect foreign supplies and shipping lanes, billions of dollars in public subsidies, supply disruptions, price shocks followed by recessions. We’d also have to leave out oil spills, methane leaks, childhood asthma and other lung diseases, land subsidence, fracking-induced earthquakes, threats to groundwater quality — and unholy alliances with foreign tyrants and despots.
So, what should Senate Democrats do?
- Persuade Manchin to get on the right side of history. He can expect West Virginia to get new factories and jobs in the clean energy sector.
- Direct the U.S. Department of Energy to work with stakeholders on a clean energy transition plan with milestones and dates to phase out most fossil energy use in the United States and replace it with big improvements in energy efficiency and zero-carbon alternatives. If adopted by rule or law, the transition plan would add certainty to energy markets and guide private investment to fulfill America’s obligations under the Paris climate agreement.
- Persuade several Republicans to join Democrats for an energy-transition majority in the Senate. Congress’s long-overdue response to climate change should not, and cannot, depend on the vote of one coal-state senator. Point out that red-state voters want clean energy, too. For instance, states that former President Donald Trump carried produced 70 percent of the nation’s wind power five years ago. School Republicans on the economic benefits of renewable energy; research shows they respond more readily to economic than to environmental factors.
“The irony is that the energy transition may represent the best chance for the states most reliant on fossil fuels to benefit from the new sources of economic growth,” points out Lindsey Walter, co-author of a study issued last year by the Decarb American Research Initiative. “This messaging that deploying electric vehicles or transitioning toward wind and solar and other clean-energy technologies will be damaging to economies in Republican states is a misconception.” Walter’s study models the infrastructure the United States actually needs to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.
Arresting climate change requires that red, blue and purple states turn to green energy. It promises extraordinary rewards while avoiding extraordinary risks. We can transition to a zero-carbon economy by following a simple rule: Invest in the future rather than the past and in what makes us stronger rather than weaker.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.
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