With the announcement of Congressman Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate, many analysts are looking at the implications for energy policy. In most cases, Ryan has toed the republican line of expanding support for the fossil fuel industry while eliminating almost all federal support of renewable energy. Ryan’s budget that was passed by the House last year would retain the $40 billion in tax breaks over a decade for the fossil fuel industry while demanding huge cuts in the budget for innovation and clean energy. In addition, the Ryan budget would provide $2.3 billion in new tax breaks for the five largest oil companies and has enthusiastically pushed for federal government support of nuclear energy. Romney has come under fire for his previous position on climate change while governor of Massachusetts. With the pick of Ryan, he has certainly cemented his support from the oil, coal, and other extractive industries.
But this also raises another question. Just how important is energy policy to the voting public? Energy and environmental issues repeatedly rank low when it comes to issues that matter to the general electorate. In fact, a recent study by research organization Public Agenda found that more than half of Americans cannot name one type of renewable energy and nearly 40 percent can’t identify a fossil fuel. Many incorrectly believe that the US gets most of its oil from the Middle East. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that less than 20 percent of Americans know important details about policies that could save them a lot of money, including energy efficiency rebates, tax credits, and other incentives.
With key energy issues at stake, this lack of basic understanding should make a lot of people in the industry worry. Recent studies have shown that a lack of understanding makes the general electorate increasingly malleable to sound bites and can be easily swayed on such issues by organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute’s Vote4Energy media campaign. With the fossil fuel industry’s ability to fund such large campaigns, along with the creation of SuperPACs that are secretly funded in large part by corporate interests, a new but growing cleantech industry could be placed at a significant disadvantage.
Despite the recent negative press regarding cleantech, the last four years have led to a boom in renewable energy generation. In 2008, the U.S. had 25 GW of wind power, and the government’s “base case” energy forecast expected 40 GW by 2030. The US just recently surpassed 50 GW of wind power, blowing away the original forecast. The amount of solar power has increase over 600% to nearly 5 GW of solar. Looking forward, the Obama campaign has announced that the president’s proposals would eliminate specific tax breaks given to oil, gas and coal to the tune of about $41 billion over 10 years. Some of that money would be shifted over to help out renewable energy, including making permanent the production tax credit (PTC) for wind that will expire in December. (See this post for more on the political impacts of the PTC)
Republicans in the Senate have also announced their plans if they win a majority (3 additional seats) in November. Last week, senior GOP lawmakers unveiled that would expand oil-and-gas leasing onshore and offshore, speed up drilling permits, approve the Keystone pipeline, delay certain air pollution rules and limit mining regulations. These proposals are in addition to eliminating tax subsidies for renewable energy such as the wind PTC and the investment tax credit.
With the renewable energy industry powering over 15 million homes, employing more than 300,000 people in the US, perhaps it’s time to put greater effort into educating the voting public on energy issues.