Can Obama keep energy promises?

President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to make energy and environmental issues a priority during his presidency. Through his comprehensive New Energy for America plan, he pledges to invest in alternative and renewable energy, end America’s addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis and create millions of new jobs through green initiatives.

But can Obama really keep his promises?

Noam Lior isn’t so sure. Lior, a professor in Penn’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and editor of ENERGY: The International Journal, remembers America’s last major energy crisis in the 1970s. He notes there was talk then, as there is now, of improving auto efficiency and reducing dependence on foreign oil. But when gasoline prices dropped, Lior says, “people said the hell with it, and they went to SUVs and larger cars and more driving.”

The Current recently spoke with Lior about President-elect Obama’s energy policy, the merits of his proposals and the chances of his administration delivering on its many commitments.

Q. President-elect Obama’s energy plan calls for providing a $1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate to American families. What do you think?
A.
It does buy you votes but it works against the principle that we should use less energy and find ways to save instead of just paying for continued use. There’s no doubt that a lot of people are affected by the energy prices. The American people are very quick to react to things like this, so we drove like 300 million miles a month less after the [gas] prices went up. And that’s great, because then they take public transportation. So I think this kind of relief is counterproductive if you’re trying to solve the energy problem.

Q. Obama is also calling for a limited, responsible swap of light oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for heavy crude oil to help bring down prices at the pump. Will that work?
A.
That’s a very bad idea. We have a strategic reserve that we put together for real emergencies. The amount in there is not very large so even if he releases oil, it’s not going to be all that much. In fact, the Bush Administration was trying to do the opposite, to put more into the reserve, and they stopped doing it because the oil price went up. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is 700 million barrels. If we emptied it all, it’d be enough for about a month.

Q. One of the administration’s goals is to have a million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015. Is that possible?
A.
The hybrid plug-in is really the best future for individual transportation, besides public transportation. Going in that direction is great. Obama has the tendency of putting certain goals in numbers. It’s OK to set goals but one has to be very realistic because things don’t happen like that. They go piece by piece and they develop over time and there are changes during that time. This, I think, is not a good idea. It’s a good idea to say that we would like to have a certain number and we will go carefully into this rather than set this type of number [goals]. It’s not very realistic to put so many cars in view of the fleet that we have now.

Q. How about a cap-and-trade program, which he says would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050?
A.
I think that the general approach is correct. By 2050, it’s possible. It’s a good goal.

Q. One of the ways the administration hopes to reduce our national carbon footprint is through the proposed National Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce the carbon in our fuels 10 percent by 2020. What exactly is this program about?
A.
Both candidates, and Obama more so than McCain, emphasized that they would like to reduce carbon emissions, which is good. Now again, Obama gives specific numbers like this and I’d like to say if you’re going in that direction, you have to go cautiously. He proposes to put biomasses as the reducer for [carbon dioxide] but there might be other ways that he does not like so much. For example, you can put a lot of nuclear power in and that has a much better [carbon dioxide] emission profile than biomass or anything else, even better than solar or wind.

Q. Obama says he’d like to see five so-called “clean coal” plants built during his term. But there are critics of this technology. Is clean coal the way to go?
A.
Right now, the Bush Administration is doing the same thing, except they’re committed to one plant and it’s not built. ... Clean coal combustion is really of upmost importance to our country. We have lots of coal and if we can find ways to burn it with minimal [carbon dioxide] and other emissions, then we’re in business. We’ll have fuel for 100 years or more. But to specifically say that he’s going to do five plants…maybe the first one will prove that you don’t need five, maybe you don’t need any or maybe you should do something else. I would not do it in that frame. I would say, ‘We ought to do at least one plant, maybe continue the one that Bush started.’ Demonstrate the feasibility and then let industry go ahead and do it.

Q. Finally, if the President-elect were to make you energy czar, how would you go about setting America’s energy agenda?
A.
You have to do several things at the same time without focusing on just one. I would put a little more emphasis on nuclear. Although I know the consequences, there are some opportunities. And definitely move into a lot more renewable energy. I would look into our enormous deposits of oil shales. We have almost ten times more oil [in oil shales] than all of Saudi Arabia has in their deposits. And some fraction of the budget would go to develop a long range plan that will ensure future options that go beyond the familiar and have a sort of high potential maybe 25 or 30 years from now, or later. And I would do some drilling in some of our reserves.

Originally published Dec. 4, 2008.

Originally published on December 4, 2008