From Putin, a blessing in disguise
There are a lot of people who seem intent on restarting the Cold War — in both Moscow and Washington. I am not one of them. But if we’re going to have a new Cold War, then I have one condition: I want a new moonshot.
The Space Race and the technologies it produced weren’t purely an offshoot of the U.S.-Soviet missile competition, but they were certainly energized by that competition. Well, if we’re going to go at it again, this time I want an Earth Race. I want America to lead in developing an energy policy that will weaken the oil-and-gas-autocracy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and, as a byproduct, produce the technologies that will mitigate climate change, make America a global technology and moral leader and ensure that the next generation can thrive here on Earth.
And as opposed to the stimulus/deficit debate, in the energy case, there really is now the raw material for a “Grand Bargain” between Democrats and Republicans — if President Barack Obama wants to try to forge it. Such an energy grand strategy would be a first. It’s shocking how devoid of strategic intent U.S. energy policy has been. Both political parties have repeatedly let our economy be hostage to Middle Eastern and Latin American oil despots and to energy booms and busts.
The key ingredients for a new U.S. energy strategy, argues Hal Harvey, the CEO of Energy Innovation, is, first, “to optimize affordability, reliability and clean together, rather than one at the expense of the other.” Second to “take advantage of new technology, we finally have the capacity to build an energy system we can be proud of, and by choosing this future, we will stimulate even more technologies that deliver energy that is indeed affordable, reliable and clean.” And, third, to “ensure that our natural gas bonanza actually ushers in a truly clean future.”
Here’s the deal Obama should offer oil-patch Republicans and Democrats. “You really want to open up the country to the exploration of natural gas? You really want to be free to export oil and gas to global markets — so long as it’s consistent with our national interests — and affect global markets in ways that could weaken Putinism? You really want the Keystone pipeline? Fine, I’ll give you all of it. And in return you’ll give me a bridge to a secure, clean-energy future for America.”
Harvey argues that such a deal should include the following: First, to ensure that natural gas is a boon rather than a curse, the oil and gas industry — and the lawmakers they control — have to accept national rules for extracting natural gas based on known best practices, including strategies that eliminate the leakage of methane, which is so much more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Second, we need to set a national clean energy standard for electricity. One popular approach is to require utilities to raise the fraction of their electricity from zero-carbon sources — such as wind, solar or nuclear — by, say, 2 percent per year. Such a standard creates a market for renewables, which drives down costs, and helps ensure that natural gas is a transition fuel that replaces coal, not solar, wind and other clean power sources. Thirty states have some variant of this, and it has been hugely successful in stimulating development of new technology.
Third, we have to accelerate energy efficiency and clean power technologies by building up our research and development programs to the levels they merit, probably triple today’s levels. This is the source of our long-term advantage.
Fourth, we have to impose a revenue-neutral carbon tax — a Republican idea, championed by one of the United States’ most respected statesmen, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz — that would replace payroll and corporate taxes.
I don’t like Keystone. Extracting oil from tar sands leads to even higher carbon emissions than drilling and devastates the landscape. But, if approval is the price for a truly transformational clean energy policy, I’m in. You’re not going to move the vested interests without a trade, but it has to be a smart trade.
This is a grand bargain on energy that would advance our growth, national security and climate policy. If paired with similar efforts by our NATO allies, it would, in time, sharply reduce Putin’s ability to blackmail his neighbors, using energy. It would also protect Americans from price shocks, as both the sun and the wind are free, make our farmers, our coastal cities and our public health system much more resilient and tilt our energy policy toward exploiting our advantage — technology — rather than oil.
Nader Mousavizadeh, the co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, recently recalled for me what a U.S. energy company executive once told him: “The one thing we’re never going to run out of is technology.” We need to play to our strength.
I would hate to see Obama spend the next two and a half years just counting HealthCare.gov sign-ups. He needs to recognize that Putin’s Crimea adventure has created the opportunity for a legacy project of moving the U.S. into a clean energy future — a move that would make us stronger, Putin weaker and the world safer.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.