Obama shifting on fossil fuels ‘ or not?



As President Obama’s second term gets underway, he has nominated a new EPA director and a new Secretary of Energy. Steve Bennett looked into the nominees and how the industry is reacting to the news (see the article on page 24). Obviously, there are some political considerations behind any public comments, but I have to admit the industry leaders contacted are more cautiously optimistic than I.


Nominated for the new energy secretary is Ernest Moniz, the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative. Moniz is ultimately in favor of a zero-emissions energy policy, but has shown at least some acceptance to cleaner burning fossil fuels like natural gas (and even nuclear) as a bridge to that utopian ideal. In fact, many on the extreme environmental left are chafing over the support MIT’s Energy Initiative has previously seen from big oil and big gas. Moniz probably represents about as “good” a nominee as can be expected, though I seriously doubt his critics from the left will end up being all that disappointed.


Gina McCarthy, former assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, has been nominated to head the EPA. McCarthy receives little, if any, criticism from the far left of the environmental movement and was instrumental in helping set the regulations that have, along with dramatically reduced natural gas prices, helped gut the coal-fired power generation industry. Obama’s second term will provide her with an opportunity to apply that magical touch to numerous other sectors including refining and natural gas production.


Industry leaders at the associations see these picks as more of a realization that fossil fuels cannot be casually discarded and that the president’s ultimate focus on alternative fuels has to be grounded in some practical path. Unfortunately, too often in the past four years that path has involved making alternative energy more cost competitive by damaging or hindering existing fossil fuels, which are certainly not as expensive as they once were, but tend to be leaps and bounds more inexpensive and efficient that the current green alternatives.


Where Moritz is concerned, his long term focus on a zero carbon emission policy is somewhat disturbing. While it is a laudable goal, there is no reasonable way that is even possible at any point in the foreseeable (practical) future. From technology to culture that lies more in the realm of science fiction than science. How will that play out as he develops policy for existing fossil fuels to ‘bridge” that gap?


McCarthy, as noted, is even more concerning. The current administration has shown a willingness to bypass Congress on a range of policy issues and use agency regulation to accomplish goals that are difficult or even impossible on the legislative front. The current nominee has featured predominately in these efforts at EPA and one might expect her to figure even more prominently with the promotion.


We’ll just have to see if I’m being too pessimistic. I certainly have been wrong on many things in the past and hope this is another example.


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