Sure, we can play detective and find government fingerprints on many of the technologies that George Mitchell employed to unlock the Marcellus gas field, but that’s like crediting the government for the airplane because the Wright Brothers used public roads to get to Kitty Hawk.
Regardless, hope springs eternal. The president colored his argument for green energy by quoting an employee at a wind-turbine plant who said, “I’m proud to be working in the industry of the future.” But the future is, by definition, unknown.
Sure, renewable energies might experience technological breakthroughs that allow them to vanquish fossil fuels in energy markets. But then again, they might not. In 1976, famed energy analyst Amory Lovins predicted that 30 percent of American energy consumption would be delivered by renewables in 2000. Actual figure: 7 percent. The DOE in that same year projected that wind energy would generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 1995. Actual figure: 0.1 percent. In 1980, physicist Bent Sorenson predicted that 49 percent of American energy would be generated by renewables in 2005. Actual figure: 5.8 percent. One could go on and on.
What does the administration predict? Less than you might imagine. For all of President Obama’s soaring political rhetoric, his own Energy Department believes that renewables will move from 8.4 percent of total U.S. energy consumption to 10.8 percent in 2035. And even that anemic growth comes not from improving economic competitiveness but from government consumption orders. That’s not much of a technological revolution, particularly when we total up the billions of federal dollars we’re putting into that energy basket.
The Energy Department’s analysts could be wrong, of course, as could the nay-sayers on the right. Revolutionary technological breakthroughs — such as George Mitchell’s innovations in hydraulic fracking — happen upon occasion without forewarning. But there’s no reason to believe that President Obama in particular or the federal government in general is a better forecaster of our energy future than are profit-hungry market capitalists, who stand to gain billions by making good bets on future technologies. The recent spate of bankruptcies of federal green-energy loan recipients and the amazing record of bad federal energy bets over the years (fission, fusion, coal-to-liquids, synthetic fuels, ethanol, etc.) caution against turning America’s commander-in-chief into America’s investor-in-chief.
The federal government should not confuse itself with Bain Capital, and American voters should not confuse hope with certitude.
— Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren are senior fellows at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Peter Van Doren is also editor of Regulation magazine.