BioEnergy Outlook: Political Chatter

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle August 2015, Vol. 56, No. 7, p. 54

In the coming months, presidential campaigns will be releasing policy statements regarding issues important to the biogas industry. They will typically be light on details, and promise more substantive discussions to follow, which is campaign-speak for either “unreadable” or “never get put out and no one notices.” Nonetheless, these statements will be our best hope for evaluating the effect of each candidate’s presidency on our industry and our planet.

Candidates who understand the topics surrounding combating climate change should be issuing positions on Arctic drilling, fracking, the lifting of the export ban on crude oil, and perhaps the Keystone XL oil pipeline, although that is a hugely overblown issue. Truly serious discussions of climate policies will include a meaningful and practical plan for putting a price on carbon, which is the only long term effective solution in market driven societies.

BioCycle readers should also look for policy statements that support expansion of the Rural Utilities Service and other successful U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and offer strong support for the EPA clean power plan — and a technology neutral approach to renewable energy in general, recognizing that all forms of nonfossil energy will be needed in a transition to a green future.

While we typically see discussions of these issues from Democratic candidates, we should expect to hear from the Republicans as well. Very quietly, the Wall Street wing of the GOP has begun to assemble a more sensible approach to climate change, and the eventual Republican nominee will likely sound almost reasonable on this issue. Part of this is what I call the “Lilly Pulitzer effect.” Sooner or later, no matter how rich and powerful you are, your granddaughter buttonholes you on Martha’s Vineyard and asks what your plan is to keep the planet in some reasonable condition for her. Replying that climate science is fabricated or that the rapture will be here by then doesn’t really cut it with a high school sophomore.

However, pragmatism remains the primary driver, as popular opinion continues to swing towards reality. In a poll released in late July, swing state voters in Colorado, Iowa and Virginia responded 2-1 that climate change is caused by human activity and humans should do more about it.

Elsewhere in the Republicans’ more reasonable base, 13 large U.S. companies were at the White House in late July to pledge $140 billion in low-carbon investment, and publicly support the Paris climate change negotiations in December. Although technically in attendance as part of the American Business Act on Climate pledge, there must be a more substantive reason why they did this. Large corporations do not generally do things simply because they are invited to the White House for a photo op, although they are always up for pretending to do something in that situation. They respond to consumer and/or stockholder pressure, and maybe, sometimes, regulation, so we are safe in presuming either rising pressure from those key groups, or perhaps this is an effort to head off regulation which they see as likely.

It’s Not About Coal Jobs

Of course, managing the economic effects of an energy economy transition is important, but look for excessive pandering to “coal jobs,” which, as a point in a high level platform for a national candidate, are a pixel inside a blip on the national problem. This issue is without question the most egregious canard in American energy politics today.

Taking West Virginia as a leading example, it has approximately 20,000 jobs from coal mining, which, out of 750,000 jobs is 3 percent of the state’s workforce. These are admittedly high paying jobs, but easily replaced by fostering economic growth in other sectors that do not involve blowing the tops off mountains. This issue always reminds me of a trivial but interesting anecdote. Do I remember correctly that the second half of the 20th century produced a steady stream of movies, books and songs about how lousy these jobs were? Were we not introduced to character after character determined to liberate themselves from the yoke of the mining bosses? Creating a future green economy manufacturing and installing new renewable energy technologies should be a welcome economic transition. In any event, West Virginia has not elected a Democrat since 1996, and the most recent Republican margin of victory was around 25 percent, so extensive discussion of this issue makes little tactical sense anyway.

Overall, let us hope that candidates bring forth a stronger set of policies, and share these with the electorate in a comprehensible way before the general election. Then whoever wins will have a mandate for real change.

Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

 

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