Reflections on Short-term vs. Long-term Thinking on Energy Policy

In this post U.S.-election period there are many articles on what to expect from the U.S. Congress now that Republicans will control both Houses of Congress for at least two years after January 20, 2015. After reading quite a few of them, and authoring one in a recent blog post (‘What Might the 2014 Elections Mean for U.S. Energy and Environmental Policy’), my thoughts turned to the conflict between short-term and long-term thinking in the formulation of energy policy. In particular, I am reminded of the observation by Kevin Phillips, former Republican strategist and then registered Independent, in his 2006 book ‘American Theocracy’, as paraphrased in one of several reviews of his book: “His objective historical notes about previously fallen Empires involved several historical facts that have occurred to other great powers in the past: global usurpation, religious intransigence, debt, and dependency on resources that are *outside* of the nation…’s a truthful observation based on statistical facts, not necessarily just opinion. And, it’s a concept that happens to ALL empires over the course of world history.”

In his discussion Phillips refers to the fall of the Roman Empire, but also more recent examples of previously-dominant nations that relied too long on particular energy sources as other resources became available and strategically important. He cites the Netherlands and other maritime nations for dependence on wind energy in the 1600’s, the British dependence on coal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the U.S. dependence on oil in the 20th century. These points have stuck with me ever since.

U.S. dependence on oil and other fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) in these early years of the 21st century is still extensive, and many vested interests with short-term perspectives are understandably fighting hard to maintain this status quo. Economic self-interest, rather than long-term national interest, is a powerful force and few champions exist in the U.S. Congress for a longer-term perspective. This is fully understandable from a political point-of-view when the next election is only two or fewer than six years away, and politics today is overly-dependent on private campaign contributions. However, this is survival, not leadership, and many if not most of our elected representatives take the easy way out by voting for short-term rather than long-term solutions to our nation’s energy problems. To this observer it seems clear that a transition to a clean energy society is an imperative for the U.S. and other countries, and the faster this transition occurs the better.

As with any transition there are winners and losers, and the U.S. fossil fuel industries feel deeply threatened by potential loss of markets, as is already happening in the coal industry. This will happen in the oil industry as well, as U.S. demand for oil is steadily reduced by more energy-efficient transportation vehicles, and despite the emergence of oil derived from fracking of oil shale deposits. This will also be true of natural gas from fracking, as fracking is likely to be a few decades phenomenon and not a long-term energy resource. On a global basis this transition will be stretched out as developing countries require energy supplies now as their economies develop (e.g., increased demand for cars/transportation fuels in China and India), and renewable energy supplies are developing their ability to meet this growing and long-term demand in an environmentally sustainable way.

Looking beyond self-interest for most people is not easy, and requires champions – i.e., people with a long-term vision of the future (the ‘vision thing’ again, as derisively characterized by President H.W. Bush) who are willing to stick their necks out to propose policies that may have short-term political liabilities. Examples are Lincoln’s decision on Emancipation, Teddy Roosevelt’s protection of the environment and his battles against corporate irresponsibility, FDR’s push for Social Security legislation and banking reform, Truman’s racial integration of the U.S. military, LBJ’s support of civil rights legislation, and Obama’s push for health insurance for millions of previously-uninsured Americans. His recent push for stimulating renewable energy production and reducing U.S. carbon emissions may fall into this category as well.

To be truthful, I see no national leaders post Obama who are naturals to serve this role on energy and environmental policy. Few, if any, Republican politicians are willing to buck the right wing of their Party on energy and other issues, largely out of fear of right-wing primary challenges, and no Democratic leader has assumed this mantle in conspicuous ways. Even Hillary Clinton’s priorities on energy and environmental policy are unclear, despite years in the public limelight, due to her extremely cautious approach to an announcement of her interest in the Democratic nomination for President in the upcoming 2016 election.

In light of all this, I am concerned about our long-term energy future and the price we will pay for not adopting appropriate policies now that will expedite the clean-energy transition, which I consider inevitable. The costs I see are in continued dependence on other countries for parts of our energy supply, less flexibility in our foreign policy, environmental damage due to pollutant and carbon emissions, and long-term economic vulnerability as fossil fuel energy costs rise and other countries take the lead in providing clean-energy technologies to an expanding and more environmentally-sensitive global population. The U.S. has a choice to make, to be a major player in the coming clean-energy future, or continue to resist the speedy replacement of our current fossil-fuel-dominated energy infrastructure and play a diminishing role in the decades ahead. This is Kevin Phillips’ point, and one I agree with strongly: if the U.S. is not sensitive enough to the role of energy resources in a nation’s global standing, its role can change over time . We should learn from history, not just repeat it.


Allan that is a good summary but it leaves out one technology and one governmental issue.

Nuclear…We increase our risks (security and economic) by forgetting about Ike’s Atoms for Peace and other high-risk serious parts remaining attached to that “source” of energy.

Government…state and local governments are all that is left of democracy for strengthening movement toward clean technologies. The war on local government is absolutely under way here in CO and local governments do not get much help from Democrats when the SupCt opens the door to high-dollar contributions.

That Interior/BLM was already untrustworthy in the Gulf with a nominal Dem in the WH shows a persistent problem in government that cannot be ignored.

I agree that the nuclear option raises many important questions and I have tried to identify them in an earlier blog post. I am also very disturbed by the Supreme Court’s ruling on unlimited campaign contributions which I believe are seriously distorting the American political process. Where I take issue with your comment is in your dismissal of Federal efforts to advance clean energy. I believe that President Obama is not only more than a ‘nominal’ Democrat but one who has also advanced policies that are finally putting us on a path to a clean energy society. This is more than I can say for our past two Presidents, one Republican and one Democrat.

After receiving your comment I went to the listed website and read the attached piece. It states that we cannot rely on history to solve future problems. My view is that people today are similar to people thousand years ago (genetic evolution is a slow process) and history teaches us about human behavior, an understanding of which is critical to addressing what lies ahead.

Bob Wallace

Perhaps we’ve reached a point at which the government’s job is almost finished. Government subsidies have helped make wind our cheapest source of new electricity and solar seems to be on a glide path to join it.

Wind and solar at fairly small penetration levels damage the financial stability of coal. Our existing coal plants are old and the ones not soon closed by the EPA will be closed over the next two decades or so simply because they will be worn out and not worth refurbishing. New coal probably can’t be licensed and would be too expensive to consider.

As utilities look for replacement and new capacity most will look to wind and solar. Assuming they have adequate natural gas capacity to ensure grid stability. Price is a great driver of choice.

As wind and solar continue to grow and become even cheaper they will push back the amount of natural gas we use. And even now storage is beginning to replace NG for some tasks.

Put bluntly, the market is likely to save our bacon.

The same is likely to hold for personal transportation. Once we have affordable, longer range EVs the market is likely to flip very rapidly. Not quite film to digital quick, but not all that much slower.

EVs are simply too inexpensive to operate for ICEVs to hang on to the market.

There’s little question in my mind as to whether renewables and electric transportation will win out. The lingering question is whether it will happen fast enough to keep us out of deep climatic trouble.

Perhaps our savior will come not from the federal government but from the coastal states, population heavy states such as California and New York and all the Eastern Seaboard states who won’t wait for the Republican controlled Congress to run its course. These states will be the drivers who will determine markets and the smaller states will have to follow.

Plus, let’s not forget the die-off factor. The Silents are starting to check out and Boomers are next in line. Over the next decade or two new adults will be replacing them. These are people who grew up hearing about climate change, they are likely to be very different and understand that it is their future that is at risk. I doubt politics twenty years from now will look anything like what we have today.

(Sorry if that rambles a bit. I just stumbled on your site and it’s late here.)

Bob Wallace

After reading another of your posts “Am I Still an Environmentalist”, I wonder if you might want to call yourself a “pragmatic environmentalist”? That’s the way I’ve been describing myself. Idealism has it’s place but too much idealism could blind one to practical solutions that can move the system forward.

Same article –

On natural gas replacing coal. It’s not whether NG releases less CO2 per unit electricity and whether methane leaks might negate that gain. It’s about NG being dispatchable.

If we exchange coal for NG on a 1:1 basis we might gain little (outside of less particulates, mercury). But if we exchange coal for something like 40% wind + 30% solar + 30% natural gas we enjoy a major decrease in CO2 emissions. A 70% reduction in this case.

(I didn’t see a way to reply to the “Am I” article.)

‘Pragmatic’ is a term I’m comfortable with, whether it refers to my environmentalism or my support for clean energy technologies. It is a concept that has always guided my professional decision making.