For a while, energy policy in the US has been characterized by many as a sort of apocalyptic battle between a group of interconnected fossil fuels industries and a kind of scrappy coalition of underdog competitors.
Even I’ve written about energy proposals somewhat from that angle myself, where policies fairly neatly cleave into two adversarial camps. There’s those that recognize the risks of climate change and those that don’t and the outcomes on how you want government to work as a result. There’s those that see resource renewability as a key issue and those that don’t, giving us economic policies based on endless resource extraction and those based on resources being possible to exhaust. There’s those that want to create a new energy system and those that want to double down on maintaining what they already have, creating a competition for federal research funds between those who want to improve the viability of solar panels and those who want to perfect the science of dredging oil from the earth. They’re two different worlds and two different political realities struggling to live together in just one.
That dynamic seems to be changing somewhat, however. The anemic coal industry has slowly reached the realization that fracking and other innovations extracting other fossil fuels are at least some of its biggest competitors, joining if not quite replacing renewables and regulatory oversight as its bogeymen. The huge leak of natural gas in California has called into question the natural gas industries not so subtle claim to being the safest fossil fuel energy source. Ethanol producers, long seen as a fossil-fuel-like and fossil-fuel-cooperative energy industry a bit like the nuclear industry, has emerged as a competitor for favor and support within the same Republican energy-minded circles. There’s no outright conflict between any of these powerful industries yet, but there’s a new sense of fractures between them.
There’s a sense that these different industries feel crowded together within the US marketplace. The Republican energy policy proposals expected to be put to a vote before Congress in the coming days seem to attempt to address those feelings in a number of ways. Lifting the ban on export for certain energy commodities might allow fuels like coal which aren’t terribly competitive domestically to be exported to where they might be (or at least, whoever buys them thinks they are). On the other end of these industries, reopening certain federal lands to speculation and extraction might similarly allow all of these possible competitors to co-exist again. Failing that, it might at least create a feeling that they can all get along. From production to sales, the focus in “adult” Republican circles has shifted towards carving out a big enough space for all of these different industries, seemingly to keep the peace.
Curiously, this would politically put the Republicans in the place of actively governing, and at that in a way that would be to reduce competition within one of the biggest markets in the US. That’s in a nutshell precisely what they’ve branded themselves as being opposed to. In spite of the risks, they appear ready to do anything to avoid wasteful conflicts between your biggest donors, particularly as even mainstream discussions about energy sources have started talking about keeping all of it in the ground. That’s a bit of a tell – they think they might need a united front in the coming years, and are willing to spend political points today to have one tomorrow.