Political attacks on renewable energy

There’s a Washington Post story about “questions being raised” concerning President Obama’s support for renewable energy.

It’s an unusual story from an unusual angle.   By seeing the debate through one lens,  Carol D. Leonnig, Joe Stephens and Alice Crites missed the bigger story about the clash of basic philosophies.

For example, where exactly does the attribution stop in this paragraph?

“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.”

Does the idea that technology is “best determined by free-market forces” belong to the chairman or to the reporters?

Maybe the paragraph is just a mistake; it’s hard to imagine blurring something that ought to be recognized as one of the grand canyons of American politics:  the idea that “the government” shouldn’t be “picking” winners and losers in energy and environmental policy.

This is ancient history in a way.  The oil industry, for instance, attacked “government gas” in the 1980s with the idea that the “free market” should determine the technology.  Of course, what the free market determined was that people should be poisoned by tetra-ethyl lead. That was the market alternative to “government gas.”

The basic premise that industry desperately wants Americans to accept is that the government has no business butting into the energy market.

We heard that same premise advanced by Karen Harbert, Director, Institute for 21st Century Energy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who  spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists 2010 conference. She said “we dont get to choose” our energy technologies, because the best technologies rise to the top of the market.

This is not at all a factually settled historical observation, although Harbert and others would like for people to think it is.

Following the first 1973 oil shock, the idea of keeping the government out of energy policy was championed by Walter Wriston and other conservatives, who used the historical example of the transition from whale oil to kerosene.  The argument was along these lines:  We didnt need government intervention then — the transition just happened naturally in the marketplace — and we dont need  ___X____ now.

(Fill in the blank with national energy policy, strategic petroleum reserve, office of technology assessment, office of consumer affairs, environmental regulation, etc… )  Scoop Jackson and the 1970s democrats used to lampoon this idea as the “whale oil myth.”

On the other hand, a more democratic perspective is this:

“In a free country, in a democracy, this [choice of technology] is the path that public opinion wishes to have pursued, whether it leads to new cures for man’s ills, or new sources of a raised standard of living, or new ways of waging war. In a dictatorship the path is the one that is dictated, whether the dictator be an individual or part of a self-perpetuating group.”  — Vannevar Bush, 1949

So government intervention in the computer industry, in its early years, was a good idea, Bush argued.

Naturally, democrats see energy policy as fundamentally political and not simply a function of free markets. Therefore public opinion matters, and these suspicious claims about technological expertise and market economics have less relative weight.

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About Bill Kovarik

Bill Kovarik is a journalist, historian and Professor of Communication at Radford University in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwestern Virginia. He has worked with wire services, daily newspapers, national news magazines, environmental publications and new media projects. He teaches science and environment writing, journalism, web design, media history media law, and peace studies. His latest book, Revolutions in Communication, spans six centuries from the Gutenberg Bible to the Wikileaks controversy. He is working on openly licensed textbooks in First Amendment law and visual communication.
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