Monday, November 26, 2012

Lecture Notes: Realities Inside White House Energy Policy

Steve Fetter, a professor of public policy at University of Maryland, spoke to a packed room at Princeton University today about his experience working on science and technology in the White House. He first worked in the federal government during the Clinton administration, and then for three years in the Obama White House, setting priorities for policy and research. Some take-home points:

  • Much to his chagrin, he realized after his years of service that what he was most proud of was all the bad ideas he had been able to stop. It's far easier to stop bad ideas than to bring good ideas to fruition. 
  • One of his good ideas, in his estimation, was to protect the grid from any potentially debilitating massive solar storm that could occur in the future. The protecting technology is available and relatively inexpensive, and the risk, though only 1% in any given year, is substantial enough to be taken seriously. To bring the idea to fruition, however, would require working with some 2300 distributors of energy, and 50 states each with their own regulatory framework that would have to be amended. 
  • He thinks new initiatives in nuclear energy in the U.S. will prove impossible in the near term, because the "revolutionary" decline in cost of natural gas due to fracking technology will be maintained for at least ten or fifteen years. 
  • He thinks there is some chance that a carbon tax could be part of comprehensive tax reform (if such reform is allowed to happen) in coming months. He said that Republicans are open to new consumption taxes. Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who was ousted in the 2010 primaries by a Tea Party candidate, was mentioned again, as one of the people advocating among fellow Republicans for a carbon tax. 
  • He believes the Obama administration has done everything it could to promote green energy through executive order, given the resistance to larger initiatives requiring congressional support.

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