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Energy Secretary Chu Chooses Popularity Over Sustainability

RP Siegel | Friday March 23rd, 2012 | 1 Comment

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has asserted that he no longer thinks gasoline prices need to go up.

One way or another, this is a reality check. The question is whose reality? The answer is, it depends. If this sounds like Orwellian double-speak, that’s because it is. But that is what the rhetoric around rising gasoline prices has been reduced to. Is there any way we can make sense of this? We can certainly try.

In 2008, Stephen Chu, then Director of the Berkley Lawrence National Lab, said, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels of Europe.”

That was a very sane and rational statement for a scientist, who had been wrestling with the question of America’s energy future for some time, to make. It still is.

America desperately needs to reduce her gasoline consumption for any number of reasons including the economy, our national security and the environment. We all know that our fossil fuel dependent economy is not sustainable. And there is no better way to reduce consumption than to increase prices. That has been proven every time prices have gone up. People start driving less and when they go shopping for a car, they actually pay attention to the gas mileage.

But then again, we are in a recession and economists are quick to point out that increasing fuel prices will likely have a chilling effect on the recovery. Because we have allowed everything to depend on gasoline, the price of everything is going to go up. This will make it harder for everyone, perhaps most notably those companies that were thinking about hiring again.

So once again, we have the short term versus the long term. How do you get off the painkiller addiction when you are in pain right now? Not without feeling some pain, that’s for sure.

This time we have the technology available, in the showroom, but people are not buying it because gas prices have not been high enough to dissuade them from the sexier choices. This latest round of increases might be just the thing. After all, it was just last week that GM announced that they were temporarily shutting down the Chevy Volt production line because of weak sales. Suddenly their TV ads are packing a bigger punch.

Clearly not everyone can afford to go out and buy a new, more efficient car. Government incentives are needed to help those who are close, but those at the bottom of the economic ladder might very well be driving the least efficient cars and they will surely suffer the most.

When Chu, now Secretary of Energy, said prices needed to go higher, he didn’t specify the mechanism. If prices had been raised in a controlled manner, as in a carbon tax, then those people at the bottom could have received rebates so that that they wouldn’t suffer unduly. The rest of the revenues could be used for incentives, including feebates, to encourage people to drive more efficient cars, and for additional R&D into even more affordable and efficient cars.

Instead of screaming about the prices (most people can absorb the blow, as gas, for most people only represents a very small part of their budget), we need to get realistic about the future. With literally thousands of new drivers registering every day in China and India, and other countries racing to catch up to them, gas prices are going to go up. In fact they are going to go way up.

I’m sorry to see Chu cave in to pressure from the loud-mouthed, short term mentality that dominates so much of what would otherwise be intelligent discourse. Instead of attempting to explain his position he merely said, “I no longer share that view. Of course we don’t want the price of gasoline to go up. We want it to go down.”

Then, rushing in to cover his tracks, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney felt the need to add, “…this is an excellent opportunity to make the point that folks who cover this issue, who try to suggest that the statement of someone who wasn’t even in government at the time is somehow a more significant indicator of the president’s policy than the president’s policy, are engaging in politics on this issue.”

It would be nice to see an administration with the courage of its convictions that is not afraid to speak the painful truth in this area, but that seems to be too much to ask.

Meanwhile, these bombasts continue to hold forth, beer in hand, with their favorite line about how “when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s a little late to talk about draining the swamp.”

So, somehow, the proverbial swamp never seems to get drained, though it never occurs to them to wonder why these alligators keep showing up.

In fact, I think the president’s approach, highlighted by his energy road trip this week, which visits a solar facility one day and an oil field the next, shows a reasonable attempt to strike a balance between long term and short term thinking. However, given the nature of the impending crisis, it is a mistake to invest so heavily in the short term that it will preclude spending on the more important long term, and I believe that the president’s support of the Keystone XL pipeline is just such a mistake.

[Image credit: NWFblogs: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • TedKidd

    Unfortunately emotion is much more powerful than rationality.  Price floors and an overall energy plan that gradually increases those floors would allow people to plan their efficiency investments.  If only this discussion could go viral…