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WALD: The dirty politics of ‘clean’ energy

Moniz is likely to stay the wasteful course

President Obama recently announced his nomination of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ernest J. Moniz to be the next secretary of energy. A professor of physics and engineering systems and the director of MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, on first glance, Mr. Moniz seems to signal a shift from outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Mr. Moniz has expressed some limited support for hydraulic fracturing, the intensive process by which natural gas and petroleum are extracted from shale rock. Regardless, the Department of Energy has little say regarding the future of fracking, since the Environmental Protection Agency approves the permits for these endeavors.

Though some energy enthusiasts are hailing Mr. Moniz, there is little indication that this selection signals a shift in the Obama administration's energy policies.

What exactly are those energy policies? The president likes to talk about renewable energy sources, electric cars and wind turbines, which will soon power the nation's homes, offices and factories without producing a drop of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. He proudly proclaimed that his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will have the United States producing cars with fuel economy standards at 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. He campaigned on legislation to extend tax credits for the purchase of hybrid or fuel-cell vehicles.

Instead of nodding their heads, Americans should have been asking themselves: Where have we heard this all before? Lost in the fog of the economic downturn is the fact that in the United States, we already had these policies on the books -- from the George W. Bush administration.

At the start of his first term, Mr. Bush tasked his Cabinet with assessing the state of America's energy security and assembling a broad-based, long-term energy policy for the nation. A 169-page report is available to the public and reveals the very uncomfortable and possibly "inconvenient" truth -- that Mr. Bush was an environmentalist. His policy promoted the following: a reduction of America's dependence on foreign oil, more stringent regulations capping greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency through technological innovation, federal support for renewable and alternative energy technologies and environmentally safe exploration of domestic petroleum and natural resources.

Mr. Bush's 2005 Energy Policy Act included tax credits for hybrid-electric, fuel-cell and clean-burning diesel vehicles. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 set the national fuel economy standard at 35 miles per gallon for cars by 2020. It was under Mr. Bush that the 10 percent ethanol-petroleum blend became the standard in fuel around the country and that tax incentives for producing wind energy were continued and expanded. Certainly, Bush policies also encouraged traditional forms of energy development on federal land. He saw this as a necessary bridge to a future that would -- some day -- be fueled by renewable and alternative energies. Wind energy, solar power, hydroelectric power and natural gas were his "hope for America's energy future."

Mr. Obama offered his own "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" in 2011. His 43-page policy promoted developing America's domestic energy supplies to reduce dependence on foreign oil, increasing energy efficiency and facilitating the innovation of renewable and alternative energy technologies. The difference lies in the way the Obama administration has politicized these goals.

Somewhere along the line, the Department of Energy became a venture capital fund -- with Mr. Chu dispensing tremendous amounts of money to companies with fuzzy goals, the likes of whom have become household names synonymous with failure -- Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, SpectraWatt, A123, ReVolt Technology, Ener1 and, most recently, LG Chem Michigan. Federal funds to the tune of $2.4 billion have gone to these companies, up from the $400,000 the Bush administration earmarked for technology development. The problem wasn't that the Bush administration wasn't committed to clean energy, but rather that under the Obama administration, clean energy became a political cesspool to shore up companies with failing technologies under the aegis of "job growth" and "investment in our future."

The future of energy under Mr. Chu went bankrupt. How much lower can soon-to-be Secretary Moniz bring it?

Ellen Wald is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia.

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