Obama’s ‘Happy Talk’ on Energy
The president’s positions on energy policy have gone from silly to totally incoherent.


Robert Bryce

The television-news business has a great phrase: “happy talk.” On some occasions, TV producers ask their newsreaders to engage in some friendly banter — happy talk — to fill the airtime between news segments.

Unfortunately, when it comes to energy, Barack Obama is incapable of anything other than happy talk. For proof of that, read the transcript of the president’s weekly address, which he delivered on Saturday while visiting an Allison Transmissions plant in Indianapolis. Once again Obama trotted out the familiar tropes about how “clean energy” will “add jobs” and create the “jobs of the future.” In an address that contained just 642 words, Obama used the phrase “clean energy,” or a variant of it, seven times. He also repeated his desire to waste yet more money on the chimera of “advanced biofuels.”

The weekly address is the latest example of how the president’s positions on energy policy have gone from silly to totally incoherent. That incoherence was on display last month, when Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders asking them to “eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The bogeyman of “foreign oil” appears three times in Obama’s two-page letter. And he insists that his approach, which aims to cut $4.4 billion in tax preferences for the oil-and-gas sector, will constitute an “energy policy that creates jobs and makes our country more secure.”

In that very same letter, Obama says that the U.S. should be “investing in everything from wind and solar to biofuels and natural gas.” Huh? The president wants to eliminate all subsidies for oil and gas drilling, but at the same time, he says we should be investing more in natural gas.

To be clear, I’m fully in favor of eliminating energy subsidies. All of them. Let all sources compete, fair field, no favor. And that stance is gaining traction, even among left-of-center energy activists. As Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute recently pointed out, people “like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Carl Pope, executive chairman of the Sierra Club, and green energy investor Jeffrey Leonard, chairman of the Global Environment Fund, think the time is ripe to eliminate all energy subsidies in the tax code and let the best fuel win.”

Given the bipartisan support for cutting energy subsidies, why can’t Obama let go of the corn-ethanol swindle, the longest-running robbery of taxpayers in modern history? The president repeatedly derides the tax breaks given to the oil-and-gas sector. And yet that sum is a fraction of the scandalous amounts of money being diverted into the pockets of Big Ag.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the cost to taxpayers of using corn ethanol to reduce gasoline consumption by one gallon is $1.78. This year, the corn-ethanol sector will produce about 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol, the energy equivalent of about 9.1 billion gallons of gasoline. Thus, the total cost to taxpayers this year for the ethanol boondoggle will be about $16.2 billion — nearly four times as great as the subsidies provided for oil and gas. And because the domestic-drilling sector provides about 36 times as much energy to the U.S. economy, the tax preferences given to corn ethanol are 130 times as great as those given to oil and gas per unit of energy produced. And yet Obama dares not mention cutting the ethanol scammers out of the congressional pork fest.

The corn-ethanol scam represents the worst of the worst when it comes to biofuels. And despite a mountain of evidence that shows the futility of large-scale biofuel production from other sources, Obama and many of his allies in Congress continue their happy talk about “advanced biofuels” and how that elixir will somehow heal all that ails America.

To be fair, Obama’s rhetoric on biofuels is nearly identical to that of his predecessor. In February 2007, George W. Bush visited an enzyme-production facility in North Carolina owned by a company called Novozymes and declared that “it’s an interesting time, isn’t it, when you’re able to say, we’re on the verge of some breakthroughs that will enable a pile of wood chips to become the raw materials for fuels that will run your car.” That same day, the White House put out a press release declaring that as “cellulosic ethanol production becomes commercially viable,” plants around the country will be able to use “grass from a prairie, wood chips from a forest, or agricultural waste like stalks — to create fuel.”