Senate candidates play tug-of-war over energy policy
The two people who want to be your next U.S. Senator have a grip on two ends of the energy spectrum, but the middle is still virgin territory. One would offer carrots to renewable energy, the other would incentivize oil and gas. Neither fully embraces the range of sources.
Democrat Martin Heinrich supported federal tax breaks and loan guarantees for companies developing renewable energy during his first two terms as a representative from the 1st Congressional District; Heather Wilson did the same for oil and gas during her 10 years in the House. Both would move the nation toward domestic sources.
Heinrich presents himself as the environmental candidate without acknowledging that solar and wind have environmental and land-use impacts. He says federal tax breaks for highly profitable oil and gas companies that already know how to produce their products have been unproductive. And yet production technology has changed a great deal and keeps changing – we have this research going on in the state. Isn’t that deserving of incentives?
He also says that “coal and tar sands are the fuels of the past.” Not necessarily. Today’s coal is far cleaner than it was 10 years ago. We don’t hear about acid rain any more in this country because technology captures the offending emissions, along with particulates and sulphur dioxide. And it’s still improving. New technologies will make our current worries over mercury and greenhouse gases a thing of the past.
Considering how much coal we have in New Mexico and the fact that it provides nearly half our electricity, abandoning coal is leaving money on the table.
Heather Wilson has said that oil and gas production should be a priority for New Mexico. She allows that wind and solar will be part of the mix but not a large part. She’s supported loan guarantees and production tax credits for renewables in the past, but the Solyndra case gave her pause.
The California solar panel manufacturer went bankrupt after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee. Wilson questions whether breaks were going to companies with the best technology or to the politically connected. She doesn’t support federal incentives to clean energy companies.
Heinrich doesn’t see Solyndra as an issue, saying it’s not unusual for companies in new industries to fail. In this respect, he has a better understanding of business reality. Extending wind and solar credits will only be good for New Mexico, he says. He’s right on both counts.
Norm Augustine, a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, testified recently before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that “not all investments in innovation will pay off – some, perhaps most, will fail. This is simply a fact of life.”
Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, is an advocate of free enterprise but argues that “the energy dilemma seems to be exactly the sort of issue that governments are designed to help solve.” There are benefits to all citizens, and private industry can’t or won’t step up during the earliest stages because of financial risk and the span of time between investment and return.
Wilson accepts part of the argument: Government should support basic research, she says, because private industry won’t. True enough. Basic research can prove or disprove a concept or early-stage gizmo; industry can then use the information in processes or products.
She appears to buy into election-year dogma about government not picking winners and losers. Augustine says the government is already picking winners and losers through multiple agencies. The system works reasonably well, provided there is competition for ideas, transparency of results, and competent government employees to judge the results.
I find myself wanting to combine the two into a hybrid candidate who would advance the development of all our energy sources.