The federal government’s natural gas R&D breakthrough

Michael Giberson

In the recent edition of The American magazine, the on-line journal of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write in defense of the President’s State of the Union address claim of federal government credit for the shale gas revolution. (For those of you not keeping score at home, (1) I commented on a related Shellenberger and Nordhaus op-ed in two posts back in December 2011, here and here, and then (2) followed with a comment in response to the State of the Union remark in late January 2012, here.)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus begin this recent article:

In his State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the 30-year history of federal support for new shale gas drilling technologies to defend his present day investments in green energy. Obama stressed the value of shale gas—which will create thousands of jobs and billions in profits—as part of his “all of the above” approach to energy, and defended the critical role government investment has always played in developing new energy technologies, from nuclear to solar panels to wind turbines.

The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (hereherehere, and here), who have downplayed and even attempted to deny the important role that federal investments in hydrofracking, geologic mapping, and horizontal drilling played in the shale gas revolution.

This is an over-reaction. In acknowledging the critical role government funding played in shale gas, conservatives need not write a blank check for all government energy subsidies. Indeed, a closer look at the shale gas story challenges liberal policy preferences as much as it challenges those of conservatives, and points to much-needed reforms for today’s mash of state and federal clean energy subsidies and mandates.

Note that the first of their “here” links is to the first of my two December 2011 blog posts in response to their op-ed, as it appeared at The Energy Collective site (where some of our KP energy-related posts get a second life). As it happens, after the President’s address, the Master Resource blog republished the post as a commentary in response to the President’s natural gas research claim, appending to my title “(December 20 post becomes part of a national debate).”

I want to object to a couple of pretty minor points below, but before I object let me emphasize my agreement with part of what they say about much-needed reforms to today’s state and federal clean energy policies. As they point out late in their article, they’d like to see a reduction or even an end to most current renewable energy production subsidies and direct some of that funding to energy research and innovation. I would completely support such a move, even though I wouldn’t defend the change on the same grounds that they do.

And now two petty objections, both in response to the sentence “The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (here, ….”

  • First, I am not a conservative. I am pro-dynamism, pro-market, pro-experimentation in many matters both economic and social, and pro-freedom. I don’t want to belabor the point, they probably didn’t mean to offend me, but I am libertarian not conservative.
  • Second, my December 20, 2011 response was not directed at President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2012, but rather at the mid-December 2011 op-ed by Shellenberger and Nordhaus. (For what it’s worth, I find their arguments more thoughtful and more worthy of a thoughtful response than the President’s  remarks on the topic. So even though my first response to their piece started in somewhat flippant tone, I did try to engage with what they were saying.)

My less minor objections to this new article by Shellenberger and Nordhaus will require a bit more explanation, so I’ll defer them for now. In brief, I still object to how they characterize the significance of the federal role in drilling technology and especially to some of the policy inferences they want to make. In addition, I will want to explain how and why I would support the kind of renewable energy policy reforms they propose even though I disagree with the reasons they give for the reforms.

I should add that their article goes far beyond the first three paragraphs quoted above. You should read the whole thing.

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