Commentary

Burning Money Produces Scant Energy

This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 29, 2005.
So what are we to make of the 1,725-page, $14.6 billion-dollar energy bill now racing toward the president’s desk? In the main, the legislation is devoted to production subsidies, tax preferences, research and development projects, and production mandates for a dizzying array of energy fuels, technologies, and industrial sectors. It is built upon the assumption that investors in energy markets are underfunding worthy projects; that politicians have superior insights into these matters; and that the best remedy is to rig the market so that political preferences win out over market preferences.

It’s of course possible that investors are overlooking some highly attractive energy technologies. But it’s unlikely that economically attractive investments will be overlooked for long — they represent, after all, profit opportunities, and capitalists are pretty good at spotting such things. How likely is it that politicians know better than investors what constitutes a “good bet” in energy markets? Based on both common sense and past experience, the answer is —”not likely.”

But hope springs eternal. Recall that politicians once claimed that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” and lavished subsidies upon it. They then asserted that synthetic oil was the wave of the future, and over $80 billion was subsequently flushed down a black hole known as the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. “Soft power” — solar, wind, geothermal, etc. — was said back in the 1970s to be the wave of the future and the likely source of at least 30 percent of our electricity by 2000. We lavished subsidy upon those technologies as well, but today they provide less than 1 percent of our electricity needs. Other examples abound, but in short, there’s nothing new about our current infatuation with hydrogen-powered fuel cells, “clean” coal or ethanol. We’ve been here before, but we seem to have learned nothing from past journeys.

The bill is also full of production incentives for oil and natural gas. While more of both would be nice, what more incentive does the energy industry need to produce when oil prices are already flirting with $60 a barrel and natural gas prices are triple what they were only a few years ago? There is simply no reason to subsidize oil and gas production, particularly when the companies on the receiving end of those subsidies are at the moment making truly stunning profits.

The same goes for conservation. With energy prices this high, consumers have ample incentive to economize on use. Complaints that the bill fails to do enough in this regard are complaints that consumers are either too dumb or too shortsighted to spend their money well. Some may well be, but on the whole, it’s unlikely that Congress can make more productive decisions about how to spend our energy dollars than we can. Fuel-efficient cars and appliances are out there if consumers want to take advantage of them.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.