Doing Nothing on Energy Doesn’t Work

April 28th, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Roll Call.

Americans are worried about the direction of our country. They fear that China is moving ahead of us economically. They are frightened by joblessness stuck at 10 percent. And they are fed up with a Congress they see as paralyzed by partisan warfare. Moderates in the Senate, representing swing states and constituencies often among the hardest hit by the recession, are particularly sensitive to these concerns. As they get ready to go home for the Memorial Day and summer work periods, they are going to have to answer one simple question, “What did you do to help the American economy?”

Getting America running on clean energy must be part of that answer. The way to do it is by putting a price on carbon.

This may seem counterintuitive. But our public opinion research has found that Americans are not simply frustrated by inaction from Washington, D.C. They are driven by a deep-seated feeling that our country is standing still while others, particularly China, are rushing forward to modernize and create the new industries that will lead the 21st century.

Placing a price on carbon allows American markets to do what they do best: invest money in promising businesses and ideas, just as we have with biotechnology and the Internet. This avoids a top-down approach where government dictates solutions to the private sector through regulation. Carbon pricing provides businesses the predictability they crave to invest in new technologies, build new, clean power plants, and hire new workers to run them.

This allows companies to decide what makes the most sense for them based on the energy sources available and the cost of technological solutions. In the West, it might mean more solar power. Off the Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain West, it will likely mean a lot more domestic drilling for natural gas — and over the short to medium term, more oil as well. In other parts of the country, it will mean more nuclear power and a rapid expansion of wind. This result is exactly the kind of “all of the above” energy solution that our research shows that most Americans support.

Opponents of reform predict economic doom if Congress takes any steps to transition to clean energy. They also point out that conventional energy has powered the economy and provided families with work for generations. Let’s be plain: There will be some costs to transitioning to clean energy. But energy costs are going up one way or another — better to get in front and own the future than to have the future dictated to us. That’s not the American way. The can-do spirit of the American private sector wants to develop carbon capture and storage for coal or the next generation of solar panels, but does not see domestic demand for these products. Yet.

Why does this matter to people in Little Rock, Ark., Elkhart, Ind., and Toledo, Ohio? Because doing nothing on energy reform is hurting our economy today. The truth is that many companies in the United States are already at a significant disadvantage because we are not taking steps as a country to remain competitive in energy. A price on carbon could mean the difference between new jobs in these communities or new jobs in Tianjin, China, the Ruhr, Germany, and Ulsan, South Korea.