Skeptics of government spending on clean energy have reasonable grounds to question whether Washington is capable of effectively investing in efforts to commercialize new technologies. The last few weeks, though, have reinforced a far deeper and more problematic hostility toward government spending on clean energy innovation that makes pragmatic compromise all but impossible.
Exhibit A is a long essay this past Sunday in the New York Times by one-time Reagan budget guru David Stockman in which Stockman opens fire on everything he thinks is wrong with the U.S. economy. A lot of it is way out there, but for the most part, he at least goes after big targets: the debt, the dollar, and so on. Yet he somehow finds time to repeatedly go after the “nearly $1 billion giveaway to crony capitalists” that, he says, the “ruinous” green stimulus was. But how on earth can one billion dollars (you can almost hear Dr. Evil saying it) be ruinous? Even if you just burned that kind of money in a bonfire (which, to be clear, I’m not suggesting we do), is just can’t do all that much damage.
Exhibit B starts to explain what’s going on. In my forthcoming book The Power Surge (official publication in a month), I quote from Stockman’s memoir: “The ‘moral equivalent of war’ [a term that Carter had used to describe the energy crisis] and its attendant issues was really a front for state control of resources and the economy…. The current glut of oil on the world market [Stockman was writing in 1986] is eloquent refutation of how idiotic their position was, but at the time they were prosecuting their views with a determination befitting the smallness of their minds.” Here is energy spending as symbol rather than substance. The Obama administration could spend a trillion dollars or a hundred dollars on clean energy; to Stockman, and to many others, it’s all the same symbol of a disastrous approach.
Exhibit C is the broad reaction to President Obama’s proposal for an “Energy Security Trust”. It shows how the sort of attitude reflected in Stockman’s essay can get in the way of pragmatic deal-making on energy and climate. There is reasonable debate over whether such a trust, which would deploy funds devoted to support innovation on alternative fuel technologies, should be funded by revenues from any new oil and gas lease sales or only from lease sales that involve currently restricted lands. Those who say that they will only support the Trust if new lands are opened to drilling are taking a defensible position. But others are going a lot further. The Wall Street Journal has called the Trust an “Energy Security Trap” that would draw Republicans into supporting wasteful subsidies. An analyst at the Heritage Foundation has been even more blunt, writing that “Congress should reject the creation of a new pot of money for subsidies—whether tied to new exploration or not.” Now, last I checked, both the Journal and Heritage were pretty darn enthusiastic about new oil and gas production. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity when they write excitedly about the massive economic and security benefits that they expect oil and gas will deliver (though I quibble on some of the substance). So here’s what I don’t get: why on earth wouldn’t spending – even wasting – a piddling $200 million a year on alternative energy be a price worth paying for making real progress on the oil and gas production front?
The answer is the same one that’s revealed in Stockman’s essay and memoir. It’s the mirror image of the attitude in some corners of the environmental community that says no oil-and-gas-for-something-on-climate trade could ever be worthwhile. Both attitudes, in their extreme form, are a serious problem if you think that progress on energy will require compromise.