Obama’s ‘energy independence’ full of contradictions|Guest column

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2010

Supporters of generating electricity with nuclear power cheered after learning that President Barack Obama had included federal guarantees in next fiscal year’s budget to clear the way for starting work on the first new U.S. nuclear power plant in decades. The same people jeered when they also saw that the president proposed eliminating funding for a national nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev., originally scheduled to open this year, but delayed by congressional diversions of money appropriated for the site to other spending programs.

So with one hand, Washington plans to facilitate the construction of a new nuclear power plant by shielding owners from liability for future accidents, but with its other hand doesn’t want to finish building a repository to safely store nuclear waste. By taking such action, the president essentially said, “Never mind!” to the nation’s public utility customers, who for more than 25 years have paid one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour to finance the digging of the hole at Yucca Mountain, which now will be filled in.

William F. Shughart II, a senior fellow of the Independent Institute, is F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at shughart@olemiss.edu or Box 1848, University, MS 38677.

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John Maynard Keynes would be proud of President Obama. After all, Keynes advised building pyramids and burying money in bottles for people to dig up as economic pump-priming policies during the Great Depression.

Schizophrenia likewise afflicts the administration’s approach to America’s oil and gas industry. The president, as have all White House occupants since the 1970s, wants to promote American “energy independence,” especially independence from unfriendly countries like Iran and Venezuela. He also presides over an economy plagued by a 10 percent unemployment rate and a federal budget deficit exceeding $1.5 trillion.

As President Obama ponders how to respond to those challenges, he has turned a blind eye to the domestic oil and gas industry’s potential for job creation and tax revenue. Because it supplies most of America’s energy needs, that sector supports more than nine million high-paying American jobs. It could create many more.

Aided by technological breakthroughs, more energy resources have been accessed from remoter places than ever before, with significantly less impact on the environment.

Yet for all its talk about energy independence and jobs, the Obama Administration has continued to push drilling initiatives aside. Rather than lease offshore areas in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico or in the Inter-Mountain West and Alaska, it calls for yet another round of environmental studies. Never mind that those untapped areas hold enough oil and natural gas to power 65 million American cars for 60 years and heat 60 million households for 160 years.

The Destin Dome, for example, 25 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., could produce up to 165 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually for the next 20 years, according to estimates filed with the Interior Department. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has blocked plans to lease new offshore areas for exploration and drilling.

President Obama thus fails to heed his own preference for maximizing the use of low-carbon energy sources.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners reports that ignoring America’s vast oil and natural gas reserves will cost our economy $2.4 trillion over the next two decades if the ban on drilling in areas now off-limits is not lifted.

It is time to stop an energy policy working at cross-purposes with economic policy. Expanding access to oil and natural gas reserves would create high-paying jobs, bring billions of dollars of revenue into federal and state treasuries and provide consumers with more clean-burning natural gas.

It is foolish to wait until foreign supplies are disrupted and energy prices spike again.