Energy Policy:

Former Energy Secretary Abraham discusses biggest political myths

What are the prospects for passing an energy bill during the upcoming lame duck session? How should the Obama Administration reframe the discussion on energy and climate? During today's OnPoint, former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham discusses the future of energy policy in the United States. He explains what he believes are the biggest political myths relating to energy policy and talks about why energy and climate policy reform faces an uphill climb.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is former U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Secretary Abraham is a former Republican senator from Michigan. He's currently chairman of the Abraham Group and author of the new book "Lights out!: 10 Myths About (and Real Solutions to) America's Energy Crisis." Secretary Abraham, thanks for coming on the show.

Spencer Abraham: Thanks, Monica, good to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Secretary Abraham, when President Obama took office, energy and climate were central issues to his policy agenda. In the turn of the year and a half, these issues went from being at the top to basically collapsing. What exactly went wrong?

Spencer Abraham: Well, it is startling because this is probably as big a repudiation as I can remember of a president by his own party in terms of the agenda. But it's energy. And, as I always tell people, one of the most difficult areas of legislating is energy. I can recall back when I was Energy Secretary in 2003. We had the blackout, which prompted a lot of attention focused on energy, the need to do some things to make sure that we didn't have future blackouts and yet it was two years before legislation moved. Part of the problem, I think, is that people have grown increasingly concerned about the economy. We haven't had the kind of rebound people had hoped for. We didn't have a recovery summer and I think members of the Senate, in particular, were worried that if they passed a large, complicated, regulatory bill that it might further impede the economy taking off. And I think that worked against legislation. And the other thing about energy is that it's not just partisan. You know, there's regional differences that come into play. So, sometimes you have people from one region on both sides of the aisle working against folks from other parts of the country and I think that complicates the passage of energy bills.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what do you think then is the biggest political myth in terms of energy policy?

Spencer Abraham: Well, all I know, an array of them in my book "Lights Out!" One of them, I think, is that nuclear power is still as dangerous and unsafe today as it was back during Three Mile Island. And I think that myth has really hurt America. The rest of the world is building nuclear power plants. They're moving ahead to make themselves more energy independent. We haven't done that in decades, because we've allowed ourselves to buy into the myth that there haven't been improvements in the safety of operating nuclear plants or that they're especially vulnerable to terrorist attacks or a variety of other myths about the safety of these facilities. And I think that myth has really hurt us from the standpoint of our energy security.

Monica Trauzzi: Democrats would argue that there's still time to get something done on energy this year. What are your expectations for how energy might be handled? Will we see a spill bill? Will we see an energy lite bill or will we see nothing at all?

Spencer Abraham: Well, I had thought we'd see at least an energy lite bill, as you put it. That sort of had been in my mind a fallback position since literally the end of last year because it was clear the Senate wasn't going to be able to take up and pass a bill as large as the House did with the Waxman-Markey bill. But now I'm getting kind of pessimistic. You know, there's not many days left to session and it now looks like the midterm elections could be a very big Republican victory and it will be hard, I think, even with a majority like the Democrats have, to come back if they lose badly and claim any real justification then to pass their agenda in a lame duck session. So we're up against it in terms of energy, which is unfortunate, because it's once again postponing tough decisions that we need to make if we want to secure this country's long-term energy strengths and energy abilities.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what does the setback mean, bigger picture?

Spencer Abraham: Well, I think, again, it's a lost time. I mean it means a further delay in terms of trying to address issues like setting the stage for Smart Grid, further delay in terms of the deployment of more renewables, further delay in terms of a more robust nuclear power program. All of which I think we need if we're going to address 21st-century economic and energy requirements.

Monica Trauzzi: You're a big backer of policies that enhance America's competitiveness. In terms of the energy technology race, where does the U.S. stand and what policies need to be in place in order for us to be competitive?

Spencer Abraham: Well, it is frustrating. I mean the United States pioneered many of the modern energy technologies, from nuclear power to other areas. And yet we see the rest of the world deploying those sorts of energy and power generation while we sit on our hands. That's also meant that we're losing the battle in terms of just the sort of human equation. There aren't many young nuclear physicists in America anymore or nuclear scientists or nuclear engineers. That's happening in other countries. And if we decided we wanted to build out our nuclear sector, we'd probably have to bring people in from other parts of the world to do a lot of that work. I think that has hurt us in terms of competitively and so that's why I think we need to try to incentivize the deployment of some of these kinds of energy sources going forward, as I outline in my book. We need to set goals for nuclear, set goals for renewables. I'd like to see, over the next 20 years, I'd like to see us as a country dramatically increase both those sectors. But to do it we're going to have, you know, put some incentives in place in order to make America ready to move in those directions.

Monica Trauzzi: So then is a renewable electricity standard a necessary piece of that puzzle?

Spencer Abraham: Well, I think combined with other standards. I believe we could sculpt the power generation sector, not just for renewables, but for nuclear power, for energy efficiency, for clean coal and provide some incentives in each case to get to some meaningful targets in the next 20 years. Right now 20 percent of our power is nuclear. That should be 30 percent by 2030. Right now only a small percentage is renewable. I'd like to see that percentage and energy efficiency also be 30 percent by 2030. And, if we did those things, we would not only reduce emissions, but we'd obviously enhance our energy security.

Monica Trauzzi: Is cap and trade dead? Is this latest failure an indication that there's no hope?

Spencer Abraham: It sure looks like it's on life support if anything, but I think the fear that we might legislate ourselves into an even deeper recession has gripped certainly the Senate and many of its members, because it is an unpredictable situation. And passing something of this size, in terms of the regulatory framework that would be involved, even if you had a strong economy would be a somewhat uncertain pathway forward. But, in the current economy, I think it's caused members to say that we better wait and see. And so I think for now it's going to be very hard to move that legislation. And then, if you have a midterm election in which Republicans gain ground, as right now the polls seem to indicate they will, that would probably mean that in the next Congress the likelihood would actually be even lower than it is today. So, for the moment at least, I think cap and trade is on a very slow pathway.

Monica Trauzzi: Speaking of regulation, offshore drilling regulation has gotten a lot of attention this summer. The Obama administration is taking a hard look at those policies and how to regulate the industry. How far should they go with the regulation and can the industry be trusted to check itself?

Spencer Abraham: Well, you know, I mean this is what we face almost across the board in energy. I mean whether it's building power plants or it's drilling or it's offshore energy development, offshore wind, I mean these are all large projects. They all bring with them a certain amount of risk and yet without the energy that we're striving to obtain, we can't grow our economies, we can't move forward. And so I think striking the right balance is important. One of the things I recommend in my book, for instance, on offshore and for federal lands is I think we ought to look at the example we use for base closing for military bases. And, perhaps, have an independent commission that would make decisions regarding which areas to open up, rather than subjecting so much of it to the political process, which has actually, I think, impeded our progress on energy. So, I think there's some new ways we could look at these things and maybe take some of the pressure off the political system and instead invest it in people who would have both the independence, as well as the expertise, to make sound decisions for our future.

Monica Trauzzi: So, how does the Obama administration pick up and brush off at this point? How do they shape energy policy moving forward?

Spencer Abraham: Well, they're in a tough position because they did suffer a real significant repudiation, not just from Republicans, but from Democrats as well. I would recommend that perhaps they take a little more focused approach, not try to pass as broad a piece of legislation as they were originally intending, along the lines we've already discussed here with some focus on renewables, on nuclear, on some areas where they could gain consensus. And if they did that, I think maybe they could get back in the game, which would be good for all of us if we could move energy legislation ahead.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Spencer Abraham: Great.

Monica Trauzzi: Nice to see you.

Spencer Abraham: Thanks.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

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