A chance for bipartisan alternate fuel strategies and doughnuts

doughnutsOne of my favorite quotes — I have used it before in this column — is from Lewis Carroll: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” If you are a policy optimist like me (and an aging one, to boot), you need new, positive memories based on the visions and actions of today’s leaders to replace old recollections of disappointments.

President Obama’s recent appointment of two outstanding persons to senior government positions, Ernest Moniz to head the Energy Department and Gina McCarthy to head the EPA, provides a real opportunity for the administration and Congress to agree on new fuel transportation memories and perhaps forget old ones. In the coming months, I believe we will have a chance to use coherent alternative, transitional fuel strategies in place of incoherent, often inconsistent, inequitable and, yes, ineffective policies that are now in place. “Drill, baby, drill” and “all of the above” are not policies. They both lack clear objectives. They both suggest a lack of political will, ability or willingness to define transitional fuel priorities consistent with national environmental and GHG commitments.

“Drill, baby, drill” advocates suggest that increased oil drilling will lower and stabilize the price of gasoline. But it won’t, not on a sustained basis. Complex global trading for profit advantage sets short-term prices and impacts long-term ones, taking into account U.S.-produced oil volume, tension in the Middle East and the economic health of Asia. Wall Street plays a major speculative role in influencing oil prices. Its bets on oil are often seemingly based on faith (not always careful analyses) and often generate gas spikes. “All of the above” illustrates a failure to define priorities, particularly in periods of economic and budget constraints. Paraphrasing some in Congress, “What the hell, we cannot take the political heat (global warming is apparently less troubling) of developing real priorities. Let’s do everything!”

Why am I so up upbeat about the president’s new leadership choices? It’s not because I am from Boston and they both have strong links to that beautiful city. Before I tell you, I should admit that neither President Obama nor former President George W. Bush were able to develop comprehensive energy or vehicular-fuel policies or even more limited alternative fuel strategies. Congress, during the last eight or nine years, did no better. Oil producers seem to have significant influence pre-Obama, concerning the energy and transportation policies grab bag. Lack of bipartisanship and economic concerns appeared to mute Obama’s alternative fuel efforts in his first term.

Okay, hopefully now we are entering a different time. Appointment of Moniz as Energy Secretary, assuming Congressional approval, will give the nation an outstanding scientist. Having headed MIT’s successful energy initiatives, he isn’t a neophyte concerning the impact of gasoline and alternative fuels on the environment, climate change, the economy and security. He was a very innovative Under Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration and has worn out lots of shoe leather walking the halls of Congress to seek consensus on energy issues. Moniz, according to those who know him well, is smart, fair, insightful and committed to making a difference with respect to GHG emissions and alternative fuel use.

Obama plucked Gina McCarthy from within EPA where she was a senior official in charge of air quality. Her background, like Moniz’s, is terrific. She has held major environmental leadership positions in state government and key positions in Washington. The New York Times calls her a tough-talking native of Boston and an experienced clean air regulator. Interestingly, and perhaps a sign of Obama’s recognition that securing a decent alternative, transitional fuel strategy will require bipartisanship, McCarthy previously worked for the Republican governor of Connecticut and for Republican Mitt Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Both Moniz and McCarthy are non-ideological persons. Neither exhibits absolute wisdom regarding energy or fuel policies. Moniz has, correctly, advocated the benefits of using natural gas and its derivative methanol as well as other alternative fuels as a means to move forward quickly to secure environmental benefits and lower GHG emissions. McCarthy has focused more on the quality of the air we breathe and on developing consensus among government, environmentalists and relevant industries. By all soundings, she has done a solid job of listening and building consensus concerning effective and fair regulatory frameworks. She is not a Johnny-come-lately to natural gas. Administrator-to-be McCarthy was assigned the role by the president to work with Congress and varied interest groups to develop realistic, meaningful carbon-reduction initiatives, particularly with respect to power plants. While more needs to be done, the switch from coal-fueled to natural-gas fueled plants in the last two or three years has generated a sizable reduction in emissions in the nation.

Don’t expect a quick big bang announcement from either the new Secretary of Energy or the EPA Administrator concerning grand policies to increase the use of alternative fuels or opening up the fuel markets to alternative fuels. History suggests they don’t work that way.

I do expect a careful effort to review alternative fuel options and to begin intense discussions with Congress, interested states and interest groups concerning early options to extend their use. In the relatively near future, I anticipate the development of well-defined demonstrations as well as regulatory and statutory fixes to extend consumer choices of fuel at the pump and the expanded use of flex-fuel vehicles. In a similar vein, I do expect approval of very inexpensive approaches to safely convert existing vehicles to flex fuels. I am optimistic that simultaneously, the administration and many in Congress will support, through needed research, the development of renewable-energy-fueled vehicles at costs commensurate with the incomes of most Americans. As the poet McLandburgh Wilson said in the early 1900s, “Twixt the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist the hole!” Let’s all hopefully enjoy the doughnut soon, until it is banned by the chief nutritionist.