Intelligent Discontent

Lewis Offers Pragmatic Energy Policy, Zinke Offers Slogans. Oh, and Flip Flops


Yesterday, Democrat John Lewis released a detailed energy plan to “make Montana an energy leader” and Ryan Zinke issued a childish response that was as factually-challenged as it was simplistic.

To start with, both men support the Keystone XL pipeline. A key difference is that Lewis would legislatively mandate protections for landowners and that highly-skilled American workers would use high-quality materials to build the pipeline.

Now, as I said before, I don’t support the Keystone XL pipeline and have concerns about relying on coal to power the nation and Montana’s future economy. Those caveats aside, Lewis’s proposal recognizes political reality in the United States: the most viable energy policy in the short-term is to use fossil fuel resources to fund the transition to cleaner energy. It might feel good to demand an immediate shift and ignore the need to transition our economy, but Lewis is offering a pragmatic solution that suggests some real thought.

Critically, Lewis called for an end to the ethanol mandate, a political boondoggle, environmental disaster, and financial sinkhole that Congress passed in the 1970s. That Lewis is calling instead for cellulosic ethanol shows that he’s actually studied the issue, as cellulosic offers substantial benefits in the long-term.  Professor Charles Wyman wrote in 2007 that cellulosic ethanol offers a path to real energy independence for the US:

A sustainable alternative is vital to overcome this dangerous dependence, and biomass is the only known, large-scale, renewable resource that can be converted into the liquid fuels that are so well suited to transportation. Cellulosic ethanol is particularly promising because it can capitalize on the power of biotechnology to dramatically reduce costs, is derived from low cost and plentiful feedstocks, can achieve the high yields vital to success, has high octane and other desirable fuel properties, and is environmentally friendly Although we can hope for a miracle cure for our addiction, we cannot count on one; and prudence dictates the rapid development and deployment of cellulosic ethanol.

In his proposal, Lewis also calls for expanding Montana’s renewable energy standard to the nation and developing Montana as a hub for energy research and development.

In response, his opponent former State Senator Ryan Zinke offered slogans, telling the IR State Bureau:

“His plan is dropping the subsidies for ethanol and then changing it for a subsidy for biofuels,” Zinke said. “I am not for a subsidy across the board. You don’t subsidize wind, ethanol or biofuel. You go to a free market.”

Zinke said the United States has the opportunity to become energy independent, create jobs and attract U.S. manufacturing companies that moved overseas. The energy for that will come primarily from the fossil fuel sector — oil, gas and coal, the former state senator from Whitefish said.

Zinke’s argument is nothing more than a fact-free diatribe Republicans have used for decades to stall the development and use of renewable energy. To argue that energy sources need to “go to a free market” and oppose subsidies is to ignore the billions of dollars of annual subsidies given to oil and coal companies right now. The lowest estimate for annual subsidies for fossil fuel companies in the US is $10 billion annually, which rises to $52 billion if you rightly include the costs of defending pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf, something Zinke himself recognized in 2009.

Zinke’s call for free market solutions also inconveniently contradicts positions he’s taken earlier. It turns out he was right in 2009, when he wrote of American energy policy that “Our policy should be to improve efficiency, fund research, store nuclear fuel safely, and build new wind, solar, and biomass facilities.”

I suspect this will be a common pattern in the 2014 Congressional race. Lewis will offer detailed proposals that are subject to scrutiny and reflect the real world, while Senator Zinke will issue catchphrases while striding through fields of wheat telling us what an “American” he is—while contradicting positions he held as recently as a year ago.

We need to demand more of our political leaders than catchphrases and American energy policy is an excellent place to start demanding those answers.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a sixteen year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate. In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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