I was going to write this week about the post-Supreme Court landscape on health care policy, but the court’s schedule took that one off the table. I thought about covering the farm bill saga or the transportation bill debacle or the showdown over student loan rates or even the court’s decision on union dues that took a narrowly drawn case and had a five-vote majority trample precedent to establish its own political preferences.
But I decided to write about energy, motivated in part by a Floyd Norris column last week in the New York Times about the compelling reasons to have a major program promoting natural gas vehicles. We have abundant natural gas, which is far cleaner than oil and could provide a better balance over the long term than electric vehicles. But there is no infrastructure to support natural gas cars and trucks in a major way. Norris makes the case for a federal program to help create that infrastructure, which means things such as natural gas stations along highways.
While he discusses in some detail why such a program makes sense and why it beats alternatives such as waiting for the industry to do it on its own, I don’t have much interest in pursuing that argument. Instead, the Norris column provoked me to reflect on why whatever one thinks about the role and power of the federal government, it has a clear role in crafting and pursuing a national energy strategy and converting it into policy. What we get instead is the dysfunctional debate, or what passes for debate, in this Congress about natural gas and no debate or action to pursue alternative energy sources.
Of course, the fireworks have all been about the Keystone XL oil pipeline, pitting environmentalists and a majority of Democrats against virtually all Republicans, with much of organized labor joining on the pro-pipeline side. The pipeline has become a political football, injected into the campaign but with little real opportunity for Congress to do anything about it except a series of efforts by House Republicans to try to leverage the issue to force the White House to give in on the pipeline.
Faced with staunch environmental opposition that grew more strident after the administration issued its ozone rule, President Barack Obama decided to use his authority to punt until after the election, and the issue will stay there for now, although the pipeline in some form will almost surely go forward next year.
The bigger issue is how we can devise an energy policy that understands we will be dependent for a long time on fossil fuels, especially oil, that finding ways to reduce that dependence and reduce carbon emissions is a high priority and that the solution has to involve a panoply of energy sources, including wind and solar and also natural gas. Coal and nuclear power are also necessary parts of the solution, but as they have emerged once again in controversy, with nuclear power in retreat after the Japanese earthquake/tsunami, gas looks even more essential.
At one level, the expanded focus on natural gas ought to be a no-brainer. We have massive amounts of a fuel that is more efficient and less environmentally damaging than oil or coal, enough to handle our own needs and to make us one of the largest net energy exporters, good for our economy and our foreign policy. The discovery of massive additional amounts of natural gas have reduced prices to a fraction of equivalent amounts of oil.
But it is also true that the process of extracting the gas from shale — a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the use of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure injected underground — could have serious environmental and health concerns.
The word alone sounds awful. We clearly need to explore further how to balance environmental safety while exploiting this resource. But as with so many other issues, the lines have been drawn between environmentalists and drill- baby-drill proponents, and at hearings that Congress has held on fracking (all of three this Congress), lawmakers have basically talked past each other.
The Keystone XL pipeline aside, there is plenty of action out there in the country. Some Western states, especially, have moved ahead rapidly to expand drilling, while in the East, where the Marcellus Shale has massive quantities of gas to tap, there has been more extensive discussion about dealing with dangers to the underground aquifers and from methane gas released as part of the process.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has unveiled a policy to limit the drilling to economically struggling parts of the state that border Pennsylvania while leaving it up to each community to decide whether it wants to go forward. That position has left neither energy developers nor environmentalists happy.
And while making sure local communities feel comfortable taking on health risks in return for development and jobs is commendable, having these decisions made at the local level does not substitute for a national energy strategy — or for an accelerated approach to expanding R&D to make the extraction process less messy and dangerous to health and safety.
There is no easy way to make the necessary trade-offs palatable to all sides. Even in the best of times, when Congress was more functional, we had little serious effort to establish a broader energy strategy. So our dysfunction alone does not explain the failure here. It just adds to my frustration that, at a time when we have opportunities to expand jobs — including renewable energy jobs — and at the same time help to reduce carbon while expanding our energy capacity, we are floundering.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.