In his Oval Office address on Tuesday night, President Obama issued a ringing challenge to “embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny” through developing clean alternative energy. The president stated that the future of unlimited clean energy had been denied to Americans through a cabal of “oil industry lobbyists” and politicians lacking “courage and candor.” But don’t worry, the O Force is determined to focus the efforts of government on the problem, defeat these conspiratorial forces and save the country.
There are only two things wrong with this idea: It isn’t true, and it won’t work.
Mr. Obama is hardly the first president with the purported “courage and candor” to tilt at the alternative-energy windmill. Many presidents mistakenly have believed that the solution to the energy conundrum was more government action and larger public programs. In 1970, President Nixon sent a message to Congress that he was “inaugurating a program to marshal both government and private research with the goal of producing an unconventionally powered, virtually pollution-free automobile within five years.” Mr. Nixon set 1980 as the year when America would be energy independent. President Ford moved the target date back to 1985, and it was later dropped.
President Carter introduced a detailed and comprehensive national energy program in the spring of 1977 that reads very much like what the Obama administration is saying. Mr. Carter promoted the development of “nonconventional” energy sources, which today are called “alternative” energy. He advocated “increased funding for photovoltaic systems, solar space cooling and other solar buildings technologies, small wind-energy conversion systems and demonstration projects on wood-derived biomass,” among other dreams. Despite Jimmy’s best efforts, the promised future of solar energy and wood-derived biomass remains elusive.
President George H.W. Bush established the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a public-private partnership to develop batteries for electric vehicles that, according to one 1998 study, “confirmed that there are major technical difficulties and challenges in developing batteries.” President Clinton kicked off the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles,” a program to create an 80-mile-per-gallon supercar, which Mr. Clinton described as “a technological venture as ambitious as any our nation has ever attempted.” The program was championed by then-Vice President Al Gore, who hysterically had labeled the automobile “a mortal threat to the security of every nation.”
All these programs were rooted in the misguided belief that government is a necessary and beneficial partner in technological breakthroughs. More often than not, government simply wastes money and creates barriers to private-sector innovation. Despite Mr. Obama’s dark vision of shadowy forces and gutless politicians denying the world a utopia of green fuels, alternative-energy sources are called “alternative” for a reason. Current technology will not support their economical and affordable use. Scientists have been working on these challenges for decades and hardly need Mr. Obama’s nattering advice.
For all the condemnations of the internal-combustion engine, gasoline is an extremely efficient, safe and affordable fuel. Gasoline has 80 times the energy by weight of lithium batteries, which are energy-intensive to produce and toxic when disposed. Other potentially viable alternatives are stymied by government regulations. The most beneficial move government could make to promote alternative energy would be to disband the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency and let scientists, inventors and innovators create future energy sources powered by more than the usual political hot air.