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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Biden’s energy slip-up shows we need to talk more about nuclear power

It’s arguable how much of an affect presidential debates have on the election outcome, especially this late and especially this year. What’s inarguable is their tendency to produce some of the more memorable soundbites of an election season.

This year’s moment came during the last debate when Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden allowed himself to be maneuvered into showing his hand on energy policy. He admitted that he would, in his words, “transition from the oil industry.”

The exchange, and Biden’s moment of undisciplined verisimilitude, reengaged the never-dormant-for-long debate over the nation’s energy infrastructure, for which the “fracking” subject is a synecdoche. The recent blackouts in California are a reminder of the totality of our dependence on energy, and hence, the importance of the issue. We realize it most when it becomes scarce. We are confronted, ultimately, with not only the loss of energy and whatever it directly provides (light, heat, mobility, electricity) but the derivative economic and social miseries as well.

There are recurring illustrations of the ubiquity of fossil fuels, most recently in a clever script I ran across offering a glimpse into the utopic and carbonless future dreamed of by young Greta Thunberg, describing the sufferings of our poor heroine as she faces the deprivations of the world she hoped for. It is one thing to retire your car and replace it with a bicycle for a one-mile trip on a sunny and 70-degree day. It is quite another to forgo heat, light, cellphones, soap, and yoga pants for more than a few hours — or your car when it is 15 degrees and snowing, and the grocery store is three miles away.

What Biden told the public in the debate was that he intends to deprive them of the economic, social, and material benefits of their domestic oil and gas industry. Even if one were to take him at his word that he only seeks to shut it down on federally-controlled lands, we are still talking about nearly a quarter of U.S. oil production and around 12% of natural gas production.

The American Petroleum Institute, which makes its living knowing such things, looked at Biden’s proposal and estimates that his federal leasing ban will, among other things, cost the economy 1 million jobs, decrease the national GDP by $700 billion, eliminate the collection of $9 billion in federal revenues, and offer consumers the privilege of paying $19 billion more in energy costs by 2030. Even Paul Krugman would be hard-pressed to come up with a worse prescription for a stricken economy.

This, of course, would be coupled with an already alluded-to reinstitution of the Obama-era hyper-regulatory state, which would cripple those parts of the oil and gas industry outside the direct reach of the federal government. The cumulative impact of this crusade, beyond the immediate and long-term economic consequences, would be to compromise the strategic place the United States won for itself through the miracle (for that’s what it is) of energy independence.

For his part, the president could do a better job of framing the issue. Rather than simply deriding wind power, he would do better to talk about both its potential benefits and inherent limitations. Those limitations would mitigate against wind power’s further subsidization as well as against assertive efforts to shutter the fossil fuel industry — not to mention against maintaining the regulatory chokehold on the nuclear industry.

Biden’s green slip of the tongue affirmed his intention to substitute fantasy for a workable energy policy. The spoken component, the desire to transition away from oil and natural gas, is punctuated by the unspoken component: He proposes to do so without a viable alternative.

No discussion of transitioning to a zero-emission energy economy can realistically even begin without considering the incorporation, on a useful scale, of nuclear power. Only 9% of America’s electricity currently comes from nuclear power plants. And yet it is the only technologically conceivable way in which to achieve the Left’s absolutist green daydream.

However, the narrative around nuclear energy does not synchronize neatly with the ideal of a state-directed energy economy, and so is only mentioned in negative terms, if at all.

Of course, President Trump has not spoken of nuclear as an alternative either, but surely this is a topic worthy of exploration by the presidential candidates. What we are offered instead are fairy tales.

Kelly Sloan (@KVSloan25) is a Denver-based public affairs consultant and columnist.



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