Growing energy issues give rise to heated political debate

November 2, 2011 By    

While energy issues have not generally been leading the headlines across America, there are several issues within the energy debate that illustrate the current state of our country’s political debate.

It would be hard not to have some recognition of the Solyndra issue. Solyndra is a solar company held up by President Barack Obama as a symbol of clean energy and green jobs, something he staked a great deal of political capital upon and to which he pegged future job growth. This manufacturer declared bankruptcy after having received a loan guarantee from the federal government for $535 million, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the loan. The issue has become a lightning rod for Republicans, who are accusing the White House of approving the loan based on political decisions and accusing the Department of Energy of underestimating the company’s financial outlook.

While not a death knell for renewable energy policy, the renewable energy interests are smarting from this one. The Solyndra issue is keeping Reps. Fred Upton, R-Fla., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, working overtime. This growing scandal also raises a question: Is the federal government capable of and should it be in the business of acting as a venture capital enterprise?

The issue goes to the heart of the debate between Republicans and Democrats: Can a green economy produce jobs to propel our economy and should the government be in the business of trying to pick winners and losers when it comes to competing technologies?

The second storyline is the Keystone XL pipeline. This Canadian project to bring heavy crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to the United States’ Gulf Coast refineries has drawn clear and deep political lines in this country. The president is alienating some in his party who see the pipeline project as an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Other Democrats and Republicans are touting this project and other energy investments in deepwater drilling and hydrofracturing of shale gas supplies for the potential for thousands of jobs, a positive economic impact and stronger energy security.

While these far-apart lines of political thinking are not new, the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness has shown support for the project. The Department of State is reviewing the project, too, and some environmental groups have made accusations that the department is biased based on emails between department staff and representatives of TransCanada Corp.

Even though jobs and the economy are the recurring presidential campaign themes, the greens and environmental policy makers are growing more and more disappointed in the president.

A third energy issue represents the challenge we have in preserving our safety net programs while addressing our budget challenges. Programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) may get a lot more attention than normal. October’s Winter Fuels Outlook published by the Energy Information Administration “projects average household heating expenditures for natural gas, propane and heating oil will increase by 3 percent, 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively, this winter compared with last winter.” In this difficult economy, those potential cost increases, especially for those on fixed incomes, can be devastating.

For LIHEAP, the challenges come from all sides. The pending appropriations bill cuts funds for the program for the next fiscal year; at the same time, the program is under the microscope of Congress’ Super Committee, which is charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion or more in federal spending cuts over the next 10 years.

To make matters worse, if the Super Committee fails to come up with a plan that gets enough committee votes, or if Congress fails to vote in support of a particular plan, nearly all federal programs are subject to a 2 percent cut beginning in 2013. Either way, LIHEAP’s beneficiaries may feel a real impact.

These scenarios raise the question of what is a safety net program and how do we judge one against another in making these difficult decisions.

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