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On Algae Fuels, Energy Innovation and Obama's Failed Climate Messaging

When did "innovation" become a dirty word in American politics?

I suppose it was right about the time when college aspirations became snobbish, when electing a presidential candidate could magically reduce the global price of oil, or when environmental protection became a “phony theology.”

Welcome to the 2012 campaign circus, arguably the most bizarre in history.

And now, adding to the long list of oddball attacks, Republican politicians and media pundits arelaunching an assault on President Obama’s offer of $14 million for research on algae-based biofuels — calling for a “pond scum czar” and offering the President “the algae in my fish tank” for this “goofy gas.”

Really? Yes, really. A $14 million grant for an innovative, abundant fuel that could potentially displace 17% of petroleum use in the country is now the focus of a coordinated political attack. It seems innovation is now becoming a politically untouchable word.

Well, not completely. Innovation just means different things to different people.

For those concerned about finite resources and maintaining a liveable planet, innovation means finding entirely new, clean sources of energy. And putting $14 million toward research that could spur revolutionary changes in our fuel use is a complete no-brainer.

But those concerned with preserving the status quo — particularly those who don’t believe that global warming is a problem — see innovation within an entirely different context. To them, innovation means tar sands, oil shale and unconventional gas. Indeed, due to the rising price of conventional oil and the changing economics of these unconventional fossil resources, there are a lot of advances taking place in these sectors.

And that is why the Obama Administration is getting hammered on algae. By talking about these technologies from an innovation and jobs perspective and failing to address them within the context of global warming, Obama sets himself up for criticism from those who simply want to access more unconventional fossil fuels. They ask: what’s wrong with innovation in oil and gas?

This presents a serious contradiction in messaging that needs to be remedied.

Severin Borenstein, co-director of the University of California Energy Institute, recently published an op-ed piece that illustrated this point well: 

[I disagree with some of his conclusions, but I largely agree with his thesis.]

Sure, the cost of low-carbon energy technologies — wind, solar, biofuels and others — is coming down. But improvements in technologies for extracting fossil fuels are making it harder for renewables to reach cost parity. Scientific breakthroughs are hard to predict: still, the most likely scenario is that domestically produced fossil fuels will be the lowest-cost way to meet most of our energy needs and achieve greater energy security for years to come.

The employment argument also falls short. During a recession, it makes sense for the government to promote job creation with subsidies and federal expenditures, some of which may be targeted at specific industries. In the longer run, however, economists are almost unanimous that the economy creates more and better jobs when companies operate in the most cost-effective way. If we don’t count the cost of environmental damage, that’s likely to mean carbon-based energy for generations.

The only compelling argument for policies to boost renewables and reduce fossil fuels is the environment. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are the primary cause of climate change. Most believe there is a real risk that the changes could cause major ecosystem disruptions, including more frequent droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires, as well as rising sea levels, more conflicts over resources and accelerated species extinction.

I certainly don’t think the “only compelling” argument for renewables is the environment. Renewable sources of energy have an extraordinary diverse range of benefits: they can offset fossil fuel price swings; they can localize energy production; they help create high-paid, export-heavy jobs; and yes, they, offer new innovation challenges to companies and universities around the country.

I also think it’s clear that renewables (mostly electricity technologies) are still chasing the record-low prices in natural gas and won’t be killed off. (See: Top Three Reasons Cheap Natural Gas Won’t Kill Renewable Energy).

Finally, because unconventional fuels like tar sands and oil shale require massive amounts of water and natural gas for extraction, there are very real concerns about how water shortages and an increase in natural gas prices will impact the economic viability of these resources.

But ultimately, I agree with Bornstein’s basic point. Given the surge of political interest in unconventional fossil fuels, sticking simply to innovation and job-creation talking points while completely sweeping aside global warming and other environmental challenges is a terrible strategy.

Sure, global warming is a politically dirty word today too. But that’s because the President and other political leaders failed to talk about it, allowing the deniers an opportunity to hijack the word. If you look at the polls showing an increasing number of Americans concerned about global warming, now is the perfect opportunity to make the issue a centerpiece of our energy strategy.

If Obama fails to make the global warming case for clean energy, technologies like algae will just be another “weird” special interest — not an environmental imperative.

This article was originally published on Climate Progress and was republished with permission.

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