Amid the devastation of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters lies one more victim: President Obama’s we-can-have-it-all energy policy for the United States.
Less than two months ago, the president called on Congress to mandate that we draw at least 80 percent of our energy from so-called “clean” sources, including nuclear power, within 25 years.
“Some folks want wind and solar,” the president said in his State of the Union address. “Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we need them all, and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.”
This is the same president who killed the proposed nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., two years ago. He still has not put forward an alternative. As a result, there is no place to permanently store the spent fuel and other radioactive waste produced by the 104 civilian atomic power plants currently operating in this country. Nor do we have a place to put the reactor vessels and other highly contaminated debris that will result when those plants are eventually decommissioned and torn down.
When we do figure out a solution, what will it cost? That is impossible to know, of course, since the solution does not currently exist. This means the relatively cheap and supposedly clean (if you look only at smokestack emissions) power we get from nuclear plants is a mirage. The power is not clean if we cannot safely dispose of the toxic waste we create to produce it. It certainly is not cheap if we factor the unknown cost of disposal into the price of the power. It is very likely that we are enjoying “cheap” nuclear power today only by shifting disposal costs to future generations — our favorite dumping ground for expenses we would rather not acknowledge.
The entire discussion of nuclear power presumes that such power can be produced at plants that are acceptably safe. If the crisis in Japan is resolved without a catastrophic release of radiation on the scale of Chernobyl, we will hear — after a decent interval to allow public anxiety to dissipate — that the successful resolution proved that the safety systems worked. Even if they did not, we will be told, the stricken plants were built from a decades-old design that is not be nearly as safe as the virtually foolproof models available today.
This is what we have always been told about nuclear power. The industry has, in truth, compiled a very good safety record around the globe. But the fact remains that any accident at a nuclear power plant carries the risk of catastrophic long-term consequences. There are many other ways to generate electricity, and none of them create the potential for cataclysm, or the need to quarantine their byproducts for centuries.
If we honestly accounted for the true costs of nuclear power, there is a very good chance we would conclude that it does not make sense for anything other than submarines and spacecraft.
Obama’s call for “clean coal” is equally pie-in-the-sky. At the moment, commercial-scale technology to dispose of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants does not exist. It may never exist. Carbon dioxide is non-toxic but is presumed because of its volume (not its potency) to be the chief culprit responsible for man-made global warming. The president and his party have made climate change an environmental theology. Therefore, to reconcile his irreconcilable wishes to satisfy voters with cheap power and to satisfy the environmental lobby by reducing coal emissions, Obama called on Congress to mandate that we get our power from a nonexistent source. Clean coal sounds good on television, but, right now, you can’t recharge your iPad with it.
For the time being, oil remains the dominant fuel for transportation and an important secondary source for heating and electric power. Therein lies another problem, as instability in the Middle East pushes oil prices into the triple-digits per barrel, simultaneously lightening Americans’ wallets while fattening those of some hostile regimes.
Greater U.S. oil production would reduce reliance on foreign oil, but the president again needs to reconcile the country’s demand for cheap fuel with the over-hyped environmental specter of last year’s Gulf oil spill. His answer was to leave oil off his “clean fuels” list and to single out the industry for higher taxes in his State of the Union address. But we have not heard him mention his anti-oil policies lately, even as next year’s voters pay close to $4 per gallon at the gas pump.
Natural gas is a relatively clean fuel that the nation has suddenly discovered in abundance, locked in shale rocks. Environmental groups do not like the water-intensive fracturing, or “fracing,” process that is used to unlock that gas, nor do they relish the additional pipeline development needed to bring it to market. And gas is still a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned, though it burns cleaner than oil or coal.
Gas is easy to turn into electricity. With considerably more difficulty, it can be used directly as a motor fuel, or indirectly, as electric vehicles become more common. It could go a long way toward meeting the nation’s energy needs domestically without relying on atomic power. You might think Obama would embrace it wholeheartedly. You would be wrong. This president prefers to make lists rather than choices, so he leaves the matter up to Congress. (Full disclosure: My colleagues and I make numerous energy investments for our clients, and we operate an oil- and gas-drilling partnership for one set of clients. That partnership does not conduct any offshore or shale-gas drilling, however.)
Wind and solar power are the environmental lobby’s picture of a clean, renewable future. Hydroelectric power, the proven renewable source with a large-scale track record, not so much. Big dams and big reservoirs are not in environmental fashion these days. Everyone loves wind and solar, except the people who would have to look at wind or solar farms, or who might live near transmission lines that we would need to get that power to people who want to use it.
Is the president calling for expedited, federally supervised permitting in order to bring shale gas to market, or to facilitate power lines for wind and solar? Does he want to override parochial objections to clean, but not invisible, windmills and solar panels? If he is, he’s doing it so quietly that nobody can hear him.
His energy policy is no policy at all. It is a laundry list of in-vogue choices, some of which don’t exist, some of which are unrealistically priced, and all of which would require a level of commitment that this president has not shown. The only practical way to get any energy from the president’s energy plan is to burn it.
Everything involves trade-offs. In Japan, people are going without power right now while they wonder whether vast swaths of their countryside might have to be quarantined for generations. They will have a new perspective on costs and benefits when they get around to rebuilding.
The events in Japan are a wake-up call for us, too, if we are willing to listen. A president cannot lead us to a secure future by giving Congress a list and telling it to make some choices. He has to lead by telling us what he would choose. Congress can then act on his recommendations.
The president’s hollow call for a clean energy future is buried in that Japanese rubble, and good riddance. He needs to try again. If he won’t, we need another president who will.