The four horsemen of US green energy development


Energy is the indispensable core resource for every advanced nation. The Biden administration’s urgent goal of moving the U.S. to 100 percent renewable or carbon-free energy will require major infrastructural and industrial development while maintaining energy supply in the transition. Potential obstacles to green transformation in the U.S. are currently disputed or underestimated. They are suggested to need serious attention because the stakes are high. The “Four Horsemen” (potential problems) posed here are: 1) Conflict and polarization over environmental and energy policy, 2) bureaucratization and politization of federal aid to state and local infrastructure projects, 3) the regulatory/permitting labyrinth and 4) difficulty in engaging visionary leaders to achieve breakthroughs in manufacturing and infrastructure.

Conflict and polarization: A recent historical review shows that U.S. environmentalists and industry have been locked in battle for the last 40 years. No nation can expect success in the demanding task of transforming energy use if major forces like the environmental movement and the industrial-business sector stay at loggerheads. The dilemma is confirmed in the title of a recent book by environmental scientist Michael Mann, “The New Climate War.” Mann openly labels U.S. corporations as “the enemy.”

Guided by former Norwegian Environmental Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, European nations deliberately avoided the risk of societal conflict by adopting cooperative environmental policies rather than the U.S.’s command and control system. Mann may be right in describing industry’s sins, but environmentalists have also embraced unrealistic and damaging positions. For example, leading environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue to oppose nuclear energy, biomass and even hydropower, which together dominate current U.S. renewable and non-carbon energy supply. Biomass has been the fastest growing energy source for Sweden, a leading environmental nation. In 2015 Sweden had already exceeded its target of 50 percent renewable energy as a percent of total energy supply, whereas the U.S. percentage was at the bottom of those for European nations, at 8.7 percent.

Federal funding for state and local infrastructure projects: Requirements involve five subtitles of the federal administrative code with a total of 270 categories. Each category can run to dozens of pages. Only large and well-connected organizations can navigate this formidable system. Further, the system’s labor and contract requirements stipulate regional stakeholder representation that complicates and diffuses decisionmaking and management authority. In the Washington, D.C. area, a superior underground plan for extending subway lines to the Dulles Airport was changed to a surface option in order to save money and gain federal support. It is now seriously delayed, and its outlays are far greater than the original plan. The Purple Line, conceived in 1996 to extend rapid transit to the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., collapsed in 2020 after litigation, delays and deferred payments.

Regulatory/permitting problems: Notwithstanding passage of the FAST Act in 2015 (designed to streamline federal highway construction approvals), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated that average NEPA Act approvals take 4.5 years. Without reducing such rates, major Biden initiatives would not even get permits during the administration’s tenure. The Chrysler building, still a jewel in the Manhattan skyline, was completed in 1930 after 20 months of construction. Boston’s Big Dig was planned in 1982 and 1983 but didn’t get full federal permits until 1991. Its huge federal subsidies made it a milch cow for local communities, and the project ended with a 500 percent cost overrun. Permitting problems and NIMBY have crippled U.S. offshore wind turbine development. A single offshore wind turbine field operates in the U.S.’s most wind energy-rich Atlantic corridor, while 5,000 wind turbines operate in European waters. New offshore wind proposals are exclusively in federal waters (whose greater distance from shore can double cost) because riparian owners don’t want to look at wind turbines in coastal waters. 

Talent and entrepreneurship: Throughout U.S. history, breakthroughs like inventions, bridges and skyscrapers have required visionary leaders. The U.S.’s current breakthrough achievements are in information technology (the internet, Google, Facebook, Twitter), or marketing (Amazon and eBay), areas of activity with few legal and permitting barriers compared with industrial or infrastructure projects. With exceptions like Apple’s products (produced in China) and Elon Musk’s initiatives, there are few breakthroughs in manufacturing, and none in infrastructure.

What to do? President Biden’s first address recognized the seriousness of U.S. polarization by emphasizing his administration’s intention to promote national unity and cooperation. His green energy plan called for “100 percent American manufacturing for energy-related products.” But continued congressional gridlock can encourage unilateral policies. Neither such strategies nor the academicized recent National Academy of Science book on decarbonization offer promise to avoid the four horsemen. They could potentially leave more areas of economic decay as happened with the economic decline in the 1970s.

A more positive approach would involve systematic inclusion of industry in planning, as is standard policy in Germany and Sweden. At the least, the administration would be fully informed of industry positions and concerns. The latter would not be left with only an oppositional role or support to the political party out of power.

The final need is to modernize existing U.S. environmental law that was enacted in response to earlier crises and is no longer adequate to the needs of the nation (see books by Fiorino and  Schoenbrod). EU policies offer practical models that have shown stability across countries and political administrations. The current Congress is in political paralysis and unlikely to be able to undertake meaningful efforts of this type. But a nonpartisan approach to reform was suggested in my earlier book. Like the Fed chairman or FBI chief, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator’s term of office would be extended and the nominee would be chosen from a short list prepared by a bipartisan task group. New duties of the office would include drafting proposed reform legislation. It would seek to professionalize environmental management, removing it from the swings and pressures of politics. Empowered to draw on the best expertise, domestic and foreign, it could move environmental management toward true sustainability.

Frank T. Manheim is an affiliate professor and distinguished research fellow at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Manheim is a former senior ocean and earth scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Tags Elon Musk Energy development Energy policy Environment Protection Agency Environmental social science Joe Biden offshore wind power Renewable energy Renewable energy technology Wind power

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