By Llewellyn King
If President Obama were driving an automobile the way he's driving energy policy, he'd be stopped and breathalyzed.
The president’s latest decision to defer a decision on TransCanada's Keystone XL oil pipeline is a sudden swerve to the left, after his sharp right turn in curbing the enthusiasm of the Environmental Protection Agency for limiting electric utility emissions.
Similarly Obama has supported some new drilling for oil, but not in all the areas the industry would like to drill. He's in the middle of the road on this one, and no one is happy.
On nuclear power, Obama signaled a right turn and veered left. He came to office endorsing the nuclear option, including loan guarantees. But in a tip of the hat to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, the president opposed the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, and undermined the case he was making for nuclear.
The mischief did not end there. Obama appointed Reid’s man, Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to end the Yucca project and entomb, in effect, the $9 billion to $15 billion (depending on who is counting) in its abandoned tunnels. But because the government has longstanding legal commitments to take the waste, and has taken the money charged utilities (about $900 million a year) and treated it like tax revenue, the whole project has torn up the commission and landed it in court.
Jaczko, a former Reid aide, has riled the other four commissioners and the NRC staff to such an extent that the four went to the then White House chief of staff to complain about the chairman. An act of frustration totally unprecedented and deeply damaging to the credibility of the commission. Nobody resigned and a damaged regulatory body is now passing on the safety of the nation’s nuclear fleet. To all appearances, the chairman’s remit was to tear things up in the commission; that he has done.
In particular, the issue of licensing of Yucca Mountain has caused ructions. Jaczko has stopped the licensing in what the quasi-judicial Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in the case considers an illegal act. According to Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry wants the licensing to proceed if only to establish that Yucca was the right way to go and that it can stand the scrutiny that the NRC would give it in licensing. Fertel says that it's a marker for the future.
Opponents of Yucca, presumably including Jaczko, fear that a license would pave the way for the Yucca project to come back to life under a different administration. Did Obama, a lawyer, not know that political brute force in a regulatory agency is bound to throw it into disarray, and to leave its decisions to be impugned in court later? So why did he do it?
When it comes to alternative energy, Obama positively drove on to the left shoulder. The administration has promised wonders from wind, solar and advanced coal combustion. It has thrown money at these as though it were rice at a wedding. The most conspicuous of this mind-over-matter exercise was, of course, Solyndra. But the spending has been lavish, indeed promiscuous, and the bankruptcies are filling up court dockets and right-wing Web sites.
Yet, the gods have smiled on the Obama administration. A boom in natural gas, brought on by new technologies, and enhanced oil production, fathered by the same technological improvements, have brought oil imports down below 50 percent for the first time in 20 years. Electricity supply is holding.
Environmental organizations, having been cold-shouldered on climate change by the world in a time of economic upset, picked on the Keystone pipeline with fury. Particularly apoplectic about it has been the Natural Resources Defense Council, which hopes that by canceling the project, Canada would stop developing its oil sands.
No, says Canada. I spoke with Canadian Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver shortly before Obama's first decision to delay the pipeline. Oliver said that if the decision weren't favorable, Canada would build a pipeline across the Rockies to British Columbia and export to China.
The latest setback has infuriated Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, which now says it will no longer rely almost entirely on the U.S. market for its hydrocarbon sales.
So Obama’s latest swerve has angered our best ally and good neighbor, denied American workers thousands of jobs and will oblige refineries on the Gulf Coast to buy oil from unfriendly places on the world market.
He has also given the Republicans a handsome gift in an election year. Masterful! – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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