Romney and Obama Surrogates Square Off on Energy

Sharp differences emerge on "clean coal" and climate change

3 min read
Romney and Obama Surrogates Square Off on Energy

Last Friday, two substantial representatives of the Romney and Obama campaigns debated energy before an audience at MIT, with Technology Review editor Jason Pontin acting as moderator. Oren Cass, domestic policy director of Romney for President represented the Republican; Joseph Aldy, a former White House adviser on energy and the environment, spoke for the Democrat. The whole two-hour conversation was posted as a webcast today by EE News's EETV, along with a complete transcript.

The standoff initially took a predictable course, with Obama's surrogate asserting that the president's "all of the above" energy strategy has been associated with prodigious increases in domestic U.S. oil production and big cuts in oil imports, while Romney's man argued the private sector was largely responsible for those achievements—and that the improvements would have been even bigger if the Federal government had not got in the way. Romney's Cass took Obama to task for opposing development of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and for temporizing on the Keystone pipeline, while Obama's Aldy accused Romney of being insensitive to the environment and to the needs and desires of future generations.

Overall, as far as that went, neither surrogate made an overwhelmingly convincing case that the other candidate would govern much differently as president. (Arguably, the odds are that Obama would eventually approve Keystone if re-elected, on the one hand, and that Romney would eventually find excuses for not opening ANWR to development, on the other.) To the extent the surrogates did differ significantly on oil and gas questions, the results seemed on the whole to be a draw, with one doing better on certain specifics, the other excelling on others.

Cass claimed Federal permitting was too slow, and that some states do much better, issuing permits in two weeks rather than a year; but Aldy asked if it is really in the nation's interest for us to have 50 different set of rules on drilling, even from business's point of view. On the question of what energy independence means, Aldy said it meant not having to worry about world oil prices when buying gasoline at the pump--but then proceeded to implicitly contradict himself, saying that fuel efficiency standards would make the future total cost of gasoline lower even if world oil prices were higher. (If cars are 50-percent more efficient, then even if world oil prices are twice as high, the cost of filling your car will stay the same.)

Regarding the Corporate Fuel Efficiency Standards (CAFE), which Obama has greatly strengthened, Cass may have scored a point when he said, rhetorically, that you should always be suspicious when the government says it's doing something to save you money; if the development supposedly being encouraged by the policy would save you money, he said, it will happen anyway.

It was on the four Cs--climate change and "clean coal"--that the really sharp, irreducible differences emerged. Cass asserted that the Obama administration is flatly anti-coal; tellingly, he argued that the administration's stated support for "clean coal" is essentially disingenuoous because it means the administration only supports coal if all carbon associated with combustion can be captured and sequestered. Since carbon cannot for all practical purposes be captured and sequestered, argued the Republic surrogate, Obama in effect opposes all coal.

In response to a probing question from Pontin, Cass said the Romney campaign does not see greenhouse gas reduction as a legitimate policy objective in the context of coal and clean coal, despite s Supreme Court Decision ordering EPA to regulate carbon emissions. Cass said coal should not be the exclusive focus of greenhouse gas reduction policy, and that the Clean Air Act should be modified to exclude regulating carbon as a pollutant, which Romney considers inappropriate.

Aldy, alluding evidently to statistics that are widely cited these days but evidently not yet available to the general public, said that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have decreased more than any other country's in the last five years. That echoes a statement by the Colorado governor, at the time of the real presidential debate last week, that per capita U.S. greenhouse emissions are now back at 1990 levels. Aldy stressed the role of improved energy efficiency in bringing down emissions.

Cass repeatedly accused the Obama administration of having made an anti-coal agenda the centerpiece of its climate program. He said Romney does acknowledge that the world is warming, but is unsure about the magnitude and gravity of the trend. He said Romney favors a "no regrets" approach, with an emphasis on technology innovation. He wondered musingly what Obama's climate policy actually is.

Perhaps the most interesting two points in all that are these: (1) The Romney campaign does not see carbon capture and sequestration as an answer to greenhouse gas reduction; (2) it seems to think that the United States should have an explicit climate policy.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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