Jan. 25, 2002
Energy policy-making in the US has become a fight against wishful thinking.

Energy policy-making in the US has become a fight against wishful thinking.

Wishful thinkers assert that nonfossil energy and conservation can displace meaningful amounts of hydrocarbons at low cost. It's just not so.

The math is overwhelming. Oil, natural gas, and coal account for 84% of primary energy consumption in the US. Renewable energy, most of it hydroelectric, accounts for less than 7%. Because the total energy market will grow, fuel shares can't change much without heavy costs for infrastructure transition and forgone efficiency.

The certain growth of energy demand makes it reckless to suggest limits on supply from any source. But that doesn't stop wishful thinkers.

An eloquent articulation of wishful thinking emerged Jan. 22 from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). In a speech to the Center for National Policy, a Democratic think tank, Kerry lambasted the energy proposals of President George W. Bush and recommended limits on energy consumption and mandates for renewable fuels.

He of course opposed leasing of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, declaring, "If drilling in the refuge is the crown jewel of your energy plan, you actually have no energy plan at all."

And he went on to disparage the idea that ANWR development would boost employment.

"Studies show," he said, that "far more, far better jobs" can be created in "other endeavors." Estimates of job creation from ANWR leasing come from "false analysis."

Then this: "Academic studies project that a renewable portfolios standard would result in a net gain to our national economy, a net gain in employment, and a net gain in wages because there are simply more jobs per megawatt of power produced in the renewable industries than in fossil fuel-sectors."

Reference to nebulous "studies" does not rescue Kerry's pronouncements on jobs from the crowded realm of energy nonsense.

The jobs-per-megawatt calculus amounts to admission that renewable energy costs more than conventional energy. It is preposterous to suggest that economic benefit can flow from the displacement of cheap with expensive energy.

And a job created by a government program supporting noncommercial activity differs importantly from a job directly involved in the generation of wealth through development of natural resources. The latter is economically sustainable; the former is not.

In his speech, Kerry dismissed this kind of analysis as "old thinking."

Maybe so. But it's moored to economic and physical reality. And, in energy policy, it beats wishful thinking any day.

(E-mail the author at [email protected].)