Although you wouldn’t know it anywhere but here in Oregon, we’re having an election for United States Senator. The national disinterest is warranted if one’s concern is how the election affects the future makeup of the U.S. Senate. In statewide elections, Oregon Republicans almost always lose, even if the Democrat is an amiable lightweight like our incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley. But the election should nevertheless be of interest beyond Oregon’s borders for the light it sheds on the ideologies that increasingly dictate national energy policy.
Senator Merkley is opposed to fossil fuels. He is opposed to the permitting of new coal and natural gas exporting facilities. He is opposed to fracking. He is opposed to the transport of coal through the Columbia River Gorge. He is opposed to rail transport of petroleum anywhere in the state of Oregon. And for good measure he is opposed to nuclear power.
What is he for? Wind, solar, tides, ethanol and presumably the Northwest’s luxury of cheap hydropower from the mighty Columbia River – though he favors removing dams at every opportunity. He also favors more jobs for Oregonians, particularly those in rural areas devastated by the vast array of federal constraints on use of the state’s abundant natural resources – constraints he generally favors.
In sum, Senator Merkley favors or opposes whatever his far left ideology dictates without regard for the realities of the policy prescriptions that follow. Yet a significant majority of Oregon voters stand firmly with the incumbent.
Of course Merkley is not alone on the left or the right. Nor does ideology dominate only energy policy. The United States Congress appears unable to take any serious action on any matter of import. And perhaps we should be thankful for that since either party’s dominance under the current state of ideological warfare is certain to result in a lot of bad policies.
On the energy front, the rotten apple in the policy barrel is climate change. Either it’s a looming planetary disaster or it’s a hoax. For Senator Merkley it’s the former, for many Republicans it’s the latter. Meanwhile the realities of sustaining and growing an energy dependent economy receive little serious attention.
Among those realities are these: Green energy continues to be heavily subsidized but has made significant efficiency gains. Wind, solar and conservation will provide a growing share of national energy, but we will remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Trains are very safe for transporting hazardous fuels, but accidents will occur. Pipelines are even safer, but accidents will occur. Hydropower is emission free, but kills lots of fish. Wind turbines are also emission free (not accounting for manufacture and transportation), but kill thousands of birds and destroy sometimes-magnificent scenic vistas. Nuclear is safer than it has ever been, but many people are scared to death of it. The welfare of the middle class and everyone else depends on a reliable and affordable supply of energy, but energy generation imposes unavoidable environmental and safety risks.
It’s a really complicated world out there, even ignoring the multitude of other matters that affect energy supply and demand – too complicated for ideology driven policy prescriptions. But that’s what we get from a Congress populated by partisans on both sides of the aisle who may be well-intentioned but who are, or believe themselves to be, captive to a politics of ideological purity.
Energy policy cannot turn on a choice between fossil fuels and green energy. For as far as we can project, our energy will have to be derived from a combination of sources and that combination will change over time. Saying no to fossil fuels may be a surefire way to get reelected in Blue Oregon, and saying drill baby drill may assure reelection in Red Oklahoma, but a sensible energy policy requires more nuanced thinking.
What we need are energy policies that encourage entrepreneurs to pursue creative solutions and, yes, make a profit in the process. We need government officials dedicated to solving problems and meeting challenges rather than serving the ideological agenda of whoever occupies the White House. Because he is in a safely Democratic seat Senator Merkley, along with others in both parties, could take the lead in developing energy policies responsive not to ideology but to the world as it actually is. Unfortunately, experience suggests that they will continue to pursue policies for a world as they wish it were.