Politics & Policy

Obama Vilifies Fossil Fuels

Obama is impervious to the facts about energy.

At the very same time that the shale revolution is saving the economy hundreds of millions of dollars per day, directly creating tens of thousands of jobs, decreasing the need for foreign oil, and spurring growth in manufacturing that will lead to billions of dollars of new investment and still more jobs, the president is bashing the oil-and-gas sector. Not only that, but in Obama’s new budget, he continues to insist that “clean energy” will drive America’s future competitiveness.

Obama is ignoring the essentiality of domestic oil and gas production, and he’s doing so at a time when gasoline prices are spiking because of the specter of a military strike against Iran — some analysts are predicting a national average gasoline price of $4 or more by April. And while his budget extols the benefits of “energy independence,” Obama wants to eliminate a relatively minor set of tax preferences for the oil-and-gas sector that are helping the U.S. attain record production levels.

To be clear, all energy sources should be forced to compete, fair field, no favor. Let’s eliminate all energy subsidies. But contrary to the president’s narrative, if that were to occur, it’s the wind and solar industries, not the oil-and-gas sector, that would immediately go into cardiac arrest.

The nut of Obama’s energy policy can be found in a single paragraph of his budget:

As we continue to pursue clean energy technologies that will support future economic growth, we should not devote scarce resources to subsidizing the use of fossil fuels produced by some of the largest, most profitable companies in the world. That is why the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change.

To begin, consider the “largest, most profitable” line, which betrays the Obama administration’s antipathy toward the hydrocarbon sector. Apple, the company nearly everyone loves — iPads, iPhones, the secular saint Steve Jobs — has a market capitalization of $475 billion and a profit margin of 25.8 percent. Meanwhile, BP, the biggest producer of domestic oil and the company nearly everyone loves to hate — oil spills, British people, Tony Hayward — has a market capitalization of $147 billion and a profit margin of just 6.8 percent. Apple is three times as large and nearly four times as profitable as BP.

Apple has virtually no manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Instead, it imports nearly everything from China. Meanwhile, last year, the domestic oil industry exported — yes, exported — about 1 billion barrels of crude oil and refined products worth some $100 billion. Those exports are creating jobs and helping America’s balance of trade.

As for the claim that fossil-fuel subsidies are what “impede investment in clean energy sources,” the hard reality is that over the past few years, the oil-and-gas sector has out-innovated the solar and wind sectors. For instance, in 2006, the average domestic natural-gas well had initial production rates of 400,000 cubic feet per day. Today, the average well drilled in the Barnett Shale in Texas has initial production rates of 1.4 million cubic feet per day.

No similar improvement has been seen in the “clean energy” sectors, and thus the tsunami of low-cost natural gas has made wind and solar even less attractive. Travis Miller, a utility analyst at Morningstar Inc., recently told Bloomberg News that “wind on its own without incentives is far from economic unless gas is north of $6.50.” The latest spot price for gas: about $2.50.

If President Obama wants to see subsidy abuse, he need only look at what happened with his own stimulus bill. Between 2009 and late 2011, $2.6 billion in tax-free grants went to just four companies, all of them board members of the American Wind Energy Association. The Spanish energy company Iberdrola got $1 billion in grants. German energy giant E.On: $542.5 million. NextEra got $618 million, and Terra-Gen received $467.9 million.

The “clean energy” subsidies championed by Obama resulted in a run on the Treasury but precious few jobs. Terra-Gen is building the Alta Wind project in California, which will create only about 50 permanent jobs. Based on the grants that Terra-Gen obtained for the Alta project, that works out to about $9 million per job. And we’ve already seen plenty of government-funded wreckage: Solyndra, Beacon Power, Range Fuels, Ener1.

Let’s compare the taxpayer largesse for wind energy with the “unwarranted tax breaks for oil companies” that Obama wants to stop. In 2010, according to the Energy Information Administration, the total of all “energy specific subsidies and support” provided to the oil-and-gas sector totaled $2.84 billion. That’s a lot of money. But it’s not spread among four companies, it’s divided among the 14,000 oil and gas companies that are now operating in the U.S.

And thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, those companies are producing huge volumes of oil and gas. Domestic oil production, which has been steadily declining for decades, is on the upswing; several analysts believe that by 2016 or so, production could hit 8 million barrels per day, a level not seen since the mid-1980s.

Last year, natural-gas production was about 23 trillion cubic feet, worth about $92 billion. That’s the highest gas production ever achieved in the U.S., eclipsing the previous record of 21.7 trillion cubic feet produced back in 1973.

Surging gas production is driving down prices. Over the six-year period from 2003 to 2008, natural-gas prices averaged about $7 per thousand cubic feet. The current spot price for gas is about $2.50. If we round the price reduction down to $4, American consumers are now saving $264 million per day. Put another way, every eleven days, consumers are saving more from low-cost natural gas than oil and gas subsidies cost the Treasury in a year.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen soaring employment in energy exploration. Over the past five years, some 158,000 new oil and gas jobs have been created. And those positions pay good wages; the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry says that the average wage for workers in the “core industries” operating in the Marcellus Shale is $76,918, a sum the agency says is “more than $30,300 greater than the average for all industries.” The agency says there are currently some 3,200 online job postings in the drilling sector. And North Dakota, home of the Bakken Shale, one of the fastest-growing oil plays in the world, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.3 percent.

George Soros, known for his support of liberal causes, said recently that he was seeing “signs of revival” in the U.S economy. A key reason, Soros said, “is the revival of shale gas and shale oil as a cheap source of energy which has made manufacturing more competitive.”

Rather than embrace what’s happening in shale gas and shale oil, Obama continues to vilify the very industry that’s helping spur economic growth. America doesn’t need more slogans about “clean” energy. It needs more cheap, abundant, reliable energy.

— Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author, most recently, of Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.


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