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Washington Post Loses Touch With Reality in Attack on Clean Energy Based on Oil Industry Talking Points

By Joe Romm  

"Washington Post Loses Touch With Reality in Attack on Clean Energy Based on Oil Industry Talking Points"


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http://www.goodgreentips.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/obama-green-energy.jpgThe Washington Post can no longer be mistaken for a serious newspaper focused on informing its readers about the nation’s pressing problems.   Exhibit A is today’s major ‘investigative’ front page report, “Obama’s focus on visiting clean-tech companies raises questions.”

I use the phrase “loses touch with reality” because the three (!) reporters who put together this 2600-word (!!) piece on the evils of Obama promoting clean energy never discuss a single one of the myriad major national problems the administration is trying to address by promoting clean energy:

  1. No mention of the billion dollars a day we spend on foreign oil
  2. No mention of urban air pollution
  3. No mention of the much larger push that many of our major trade competitors are making because they know the transition to clean energy is inevitable
  4. No mention of national security
  5. No mention whatsoever of global warming, climate change, or greenhouse gases

Seriously.   It would be like attacking the administration for spending taxpayer dollars on its new cigarette labels without ever mentioning cancer or lung disease or even public health.

Remember, just two months ago, the paper ran a blistering piece by Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, “The GOPs climate-change denial may be its most harmful delusion.” But if the GOP’s most harmful delusion is denying climate change, then surely the WashPost‘s decision here to completely ignore the harmful nature of GHGs from our current use of fossil fuels is also a harmful delusion.

The point is we must transition to clean energy to avoid the harm of global warming. It would be the height of irresponsibility if the president didn’t make clean energy a top priority by the Post’s own standards!

Instead of focusing on the reality of the many problems that clean energy addresses simultaneously, the Post focuses on, what else, the politics:

With trips that began two months after he took office, President Obama has devoted more than half of his out-of-town private-business visits to promoting a single industry: clean technology, which the president says will lead the nation back to economic prosperity….

Obama’s unwavering focus has helped him fulfill a campaign pledge to push clean tech, from solar energy and wind power to electric vehicles. But it also has come with political exposure:  By emphasizing a sector in which the risks are high, the president has prompted questions on Capitol Hill and from industry about the wisdom of his singular strategy and his political ties to some of the companies chosen for federal attention.

So who precisely is raising all of these questions?

If you guessed Big Oil and their flacks on Capitol Hill, you win an internship at the Post.   The first ‘independent’ critic the Post piece cites is …

The oil and gas industry, for example, has invested billions in energy innovation and job creation and could benefit from similar presidential attention, said Martin J. Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute.

“He’s missing an incredible opportunity he has to join with us to make a difference in economic growth, job creation, national security and clean technology,” Durbin said. “If you went and added up the number of jobs at these clean-tech companies he visited, in all honesty, I think you’re going to find a very modest number of jobs.”

I apologize for not warning you to put on your head vise.  Personally,  I’ve learned never to take mine off.

My heart goes out to the  poor, neglected petroleum industry, which isn’t getting enough of Obama’s “attention.”  You’d think the billions of dollars of year in subsidies and record-breaking profits –  a staggering $60.9 billion in profits in 2010 just for Exxon Mobil,  Chevron, and Conoco Phillips –  would be enough to convince anybody they were the favored child of the government.  And, of course, use that money to launch massive advertising campaigns for their products that emerging industries can’t possibly replicate.

Again, reading the Post, you’d never learn that like every other government on the planet, the United States invests in innovation in emerging industries that lack the capital and resources to do so themselves.  You’d also never learn that domestic oil production has soared under Obama to the highest level in almost a decade:

You’d actually never learn anything whatsoever in this piece because education isn’t what the Washington Post is trying to do in this 2600-word, three-reporter, front-page flack job for Big Oil.  The very next paragraph in the piece is:

This month, a congressional energy subcommittee chairman accused the administration of picking clean-tech “winners and losers” by pouring government money into a sector best determined by free-market forces.

Huh?  Since when has the GOP ever supported free-market in the energy industry?   Has any industry received more government support  than the nuclear industry?

But again, you’d never learn  that every other major country in the world is investing heavily in clean energy because they understand  the transition to a low-carbon, low-oil economy  is inevitable and whichever country leads the way is going to grab the lion share of the millions of jobs that will be created.

Rather than discussing the competitiveness issue at all, and how China and Germany are now out-investing us in an industry we largely created (see “United States slipped to third in clean energy race“), the WashPost  actually uses the fact that we are falling behind to argue against making these investments.

Solar analyst Ramesh Misra, who works for the investment firm Brigantine Advisors, was skeptical about Solyndra’s signature product. Its solar panels are composed of an array of glass tubes that are expensive to produce, causing investment advisers to question whether the product could compete with less-expensive Chinese models. Misra, who has no financial interest in Solyndra or its rivals, questioned the administration’s decision.


Yes, the only mention whatsoever in this article of China is  to make the point that the United States should simply give up making investments in any manufactured product that the Chinese might be able to make less expensively.

Let me and by making one final, important point.  The article opens by noting that Obama visited an energy-efficient lighting company.  Later, the piece notes, Obama is “emphasizing a sector in which the risks are high.”  This is of course true of any government R&D program — and  it wouldn’t be hard to find individual failures in any such effort in any sector.

If a newspaper wants to focus on those failures, it can score some cheap points, much as the Gingrich Congress tried to do 15 years ago when I was at the Department of Energy.  But  the Gingrich Congress was wrong back then and the Washington Post is equally misguided now.

It just so happens that the benefits of government R&D in clean energy have been independently verified by the National Academy of Sciences.  I wrote about this three years ago, and  I’ll reprint that below since, sadly, you’d never learn any of this from the Washington Post

Energy efficiency, Part 5: The highest documented rate of return of any federal program

I was at the US Department of Energy when the Gingrich gang took over and tried to shut down all of DOE’s applied energy research, claiming it was a waste of the taxpayers money. I helped organize a major report documenting the large return to the US taxpayers of federal spending on energy efficiency (and other energy technologies). The once-honorable GAO (formerly General Accounting Office, hypocritically renamed Government Accountability Office) didn’t want to meet the same fate as the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, so it became a wing of the Gingrich hit squad.

The GAO tried and failed to debunk the report, but the end result was a request to the National Academy of Sciences to independently verify the stated benefits of DOE energy research. The ensuing report Energy Research at DOE: Was It Worth It? Energy Efficiency and Fossil Energy Research 1978 to 2000 was a stunning vindication:

… the report examines 17 R&D programs in energy efficiency and 22 programs in fossil energy funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). These programs yielded economic returns of an estimated $40 billion from an investment of $13 billion.

Three energy-efficiency programs, costing approximately $11 million, produced nearly three-quarters of this benefit. Most significant were advances made in compressors for refrigerators and freezers, energy-efficient fluorescent-lighting components called electronic ballasts, and low-emission, or heat-resistant, window glass. Standards and regulations incorporating efficiencies attainable by these new technologies ensured that the technologies would be adopted nationwide, thus dramatically compounding their impact.

Let me expand on that last point: The handful of energy technologies cited above, developed through funding by my old office, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, have returned about $30 billion on an R&D investment of about $400 million. I defy anybody to identify an independent report from a body as credible as the National Academy showing such a staggering return on investment for US taxpayer dollars.

Of course, you can’t know a priori which investments will pay off and which won’t, so you need to invest in many technologies, just to have a few winners. The GAO actually argued in a Congressional hearing where I was a DOE witness that if the DOE invested in 10 technologies for $10 million, and nine of the technologies failed, but one of the technologies saved taxpayers $100 million, that the entire effort was a waste of money. Such was the logic of the Gingrich Congress. [And such, apparently, is the logic of the Washington Post in parroting this attack.]

I would add that the above numbers do not even count the environmental benefit of reducing pollution, although the report notes that, on the whole, the energy technologies in the report avoided “more than $60 billion in damage and mitigation.” And even that estimate does not include any benefit from carbon reductions.

Significantly, the way we did the benefit analysis was quite conservative by nature. We did not assume a technology funded by the DOE would never have been commercialized, only that the DOE involvement accelerated the date of commercialization by 5 years.

In 1997, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended doubling the energy efficiency budget from $450 million to $880 million, noting “the return for this portion of the government investment would be on the order of 40 to 1–a cost to the government of about $5 per ton of carbon” with annual fuel cost savings of $75 to $95 billion in 2020, and reductions in oil consumption of 4 to 10 million barrels of oil a day by 2030.

Ah, but the American Petroleum Institute and unnamed Republicans say we are already showering too much attention on clean energy and not enough on  climate-destroying fossil fuels.   Thankfully we have the Washington Post to make sure this neglected industry  — which outspends clean energy advocates 8-to-1 in paid advertising –  gets equal time in free media also.

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