IA-04: A closer look at Christie Vilsack's energy plan

Christie Vilsack toured Iowa’s new fourth Congressional district late last week to roll out an energy plan “geared towards bringing a new prosperity to Iowa’s small cities and rural communities by creating layers of economic opportunity.”

The five-point plan is more of a political statement than a detailed policy document. Like some of Vilsack’s previous proposals, it embraces some Republican talking points.

Upon closer examination, the energy plan looks like two parts bipartisan no-brainers, two parts conservative buzzwords, and one part fairy dust.

The full text of Vilsack’s energy plan appears on her campaign website. She leads with the fairy dust:

1) Create the National Energy Council. This 15-member council appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate will be charged with developing a long-term energy plan for the nation taking the politics out of energy policy and avoiding the gridlock in our political process. This gives energy companies and entrepreneurs the certainty they need to invest in exploration, production and distribution.

Sure, some panel of experts will be able to “take the politics” out of our national energy policy and avoid partisan gridlock. Sidestepping ordinary policy-making channels worked so well for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission.

Seriously, as helpful as long-range planning may be, no council could enact a long-term national energy plan. Recommendations, directives, or legislation adopted in the short-term wouldn’t bind future Congresses or presidential administrations.

For that reason, Vilsack’s talk about providing certainty to energy companies and entrepreneurs is more like political posturing than a realistic solution. Giving business “the certainty they need” is typically a Republican catch-phrase employed to argue for permanent tax cuts or against any government regulation of corporate activities. Speaking in Story City last Wednesday, Vilsack told reporters,

“I’ve had people (in the energy industry) say to me in the last week or so ‘we’re so frustrated that we almost don’t care what the policy is as long as there is one,’ ” Vilsack said. “They want some surety, they want some certainty, they want some stability. They use those words over and over.”

At this writing, the Vilsack campaign has not responded to my request for comment on how businesses would get “the certainty they need” from a new National Energy Council, given that the council would not be able to force future Congresses or presidential administrations to go along with its long-term plan.

The second point in Vilsack’s plan endorses an “all of the above” energy production policy. Again, that’s a construction Americans typically hear from Republican candidates and elected officials. I found this wording a bit strange:

2) Support All Forms of Domestic Energy Production. Americans consume so much energy that in the short term we must continue to support the domestic production of ALL forms of energy to boost our economy and reduce the high cost of gas that’s straining family and small business budgets.

When there’s a mismatch between supply and demand for energy, conservation measures are the quickest way to start addressing the problem. Vilsack appears to see no role for conservation or energy-efficiency as part of a national policy, or as a way to help families and businesses save money. At this writing, her campaign has not responded to my request for further clarification on this point.

If the federal government approved every request from every oil company to drill anywhere on U.S. land or offshore, it would take years to significantly increase domestic oil supplies. Even then, the effect on gasoline prices would be negligible.

While increased oil and gas drilling in the United States may create good-paying jobs, reduce reliance on foreign oil and lower the trade deficit, it will have hardly any impact on gas and oil prices.

That’s because the amount of extra oil that could be produced from more drilling in this country is tiny compared to what the world consumes.

Plus, any extra oil the country did produce would likely be quickly offset by a cut in OPEC production.

“This drill drill drill thing is tired,” said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, which calculates gas prices for the motorist organization AAA. “It’s a simplistic way of looking for a solution that doesn’t exist.”

Rising gasoline prices are not only a strain on family budgets, they can hurt the broader economy by leaving many consumers with less money to spend on other goods and services. Vilsack is right to flag this as a significant problem. I’m looking for a sign that she sees any potential for government to help reduce demand, either with higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks or with better-funded alternatives to driving. The 2008 spike in gasoline prices pushed public transit ridership in the U.S. to the highest levels seen in 50 years. Even residents of small towns could benefit from vanpools or express buses that offer a less-expensive way to get to jobs, shops, or doctor’s appointments in larger communities.

Vilsack confirmed during her media availabilities last week that she supports nuclear energy among other forms of electricity production. I am seeking comment on whether she supports federal loan guarantees for the nuclear industry and policies that would allow utility companies to shift costs for nuclear reactor construction onto ratepayers.

I didn’t see any comment in the press clips about policies that might reduce demand for electricity. King made national news a few weeks ago by comparing janitors who replaced Capitol Hill light bulbs with agents of Communist oppression. The Vilsack campaign used King’s outrageous comments to sign up supporters, but Vilsack’s energy plan leaves us all guessing on whether she agrees with current federal policies to reduce electricity consumption.

Incidentally, Iowa’s three Democrats in the U.S. House voted against a bill last year that would have repealed various federal standards on light bulb efficiency. Like most House Republicans, King and Tom Latham (IA-04) voted for that bill, the so-called “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act.”

The last three points of Vilsack’s energy plan relate to renewable energy production, especially biofuels:

3) Oppose Repeal of the Renewable Energy Standard. The Renewable Fuel Standard is under attack in Congress right now. The standard requires that by 2022 the US will produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel. Without that standard, we cannot create a sufficient market for renewable fuels.

4) Support Production Tax Credit. Vilsack supports the long-term renewal, for at least five years, of the one-dollar-a-gallon tax credit for the production of advanced bio-fuels. Vilsack also supports a similar renewal of the 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour production tax credit for all forms of renewable energy, including wind-generated energy.

5) Develop New Bio-Fuels Markets. Vilsack will work to develop new domestic markets and expand exports. The United States imports about half of its oil, but we should focus on opening more markets for bio-based products and fuels — creating more business and jobs here at home.

Every member of Congress from Iowa supports ethanol and biodiesel incentives, as well as renewal of the wind energy production tax credit. Every candidate for Congress in Iowa is obviously going to support those policies. That’s a no-brainer.

Vilsack’s campaign schedule underscored her emphasis on biofuels and wind energy. On Wednesday, she toured Generation Repair and Serve (a Story City facility that supplies and repairs wind turbine equipment), the Mid-American Century Wind Farm in Blairsburg (Hamilton County), and a REG Biodiesel Plant in Ralston (Carroll and Greene Counties). On Thursday, she toured MidAmerican’s George Neal Coal Plant (Woodbury County) before holding a media event in Sioux City. On Friday, she visited the Poet Ethanol Plant in Emmetsburg (Palo Alto County) and the Forest City school district’s wind turbine (Winnebago County).

Tax credits are only one way the government could promote renewable energy production. Government could make it easier for businesses or residential users to install their own wind turbines or solar panels. Feed-in tariffs have been used successfully in Europe but are just one of many possible approaches. A renewable electricity standard would give utility companies more incentives to generate more electricity through wind or solar power. In fact, MidAmerican exports a significant amount of electricity from its Iowa wind farms to states that have higher renewable electricity standards than Iowa does.

The Vilsack campaign has not yet responded to my request for comment about whether Vilsack would support a federal renewable electricity standard. In 2009, Iowa Governor Chet Culver and Representative Bruce Braley (D, IA-01) lobbied for putting a strong renewable electricity standard in the climate-change bill. To my knowledge, King has never advocated a federal renewable electricity standard.

The wind power industry has strong economic potential in Iowa, as Vilsack pointed out during last week’s tour. I would have liked to see some recognition that the solar power industry could also create thousands of jobs in Iowa. That would have helped set her apart from King.

Mike Malloy reported for the Ames Tribune that Vilsack used part of her February 22 event in Story City “to draw distinctions on energy policy between herself and her opponent, Congressional 4th District incumbent Republican Steve King.” I honestly don’t know what she’s talking about. King recently published an opinion piece in Politico making the case for extending the wind energy production tax credit. Here is the blurb on energy policy from his Congressional website:

I also believe it is important that the Fifth District remain a leader in wind energy, ethanol and biodiesel production. In order to become energy independent, we need to increase the size of the domestically produced energy pie by pursuing an all of the above domestic energy policy. Doing so will help to decrease our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and as the founding co-chair of the Ag Energy User’s Caucus, I work hard to advance legislation to do just that.

Increasing production of all domestic sources of energy: check. Promoting wind energy and biofuels: check. Ignoring the potential for conservation or efficiency to help match supply with demand: check.

I don’t see anything in Vilsack’s energy plan that King couldn’t get behind. At multiple media events, she endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline, which Congressional Republicans are trying to force the Obama administration to permit. Vilsack didn’t get the memo about industry greatly exaggerating the number of jobs that the Keystone project could create. One study suggested that the pipeline might even reduce jobs in the U.S. in the long-term.

To my knowledge, King didn’t comment directly on his challenger’s energy plan last week. His office indirectly responded to Vilsack’s tour by sending out this press release on February 24:

Washington, DC- Today, Congressman Steve King (R-IA) was awarded the USA Wind Jobs Champion award for his “determined support and diligent work in helping to create and sustain U.S. jobs in the wind energy industry and its manufacturing supply chain.” Ned Hall, Chairman of the Board of the American Wind Energy Association released the following statement congratulating King on the award and thanking him for his support of the wind industry:

“We would like to extend our sincerest appreciation and thanks for your efforts as a USA Wind Jobs Champion. We believe your continued support of the wind energy industry will help keep Americans working and producing valuable goods here on our shores.  Record levels of Made-in-the-USA content in the wind sector have helped drive down the price of U.S. wind energy for consumers, and promote America’s competitiveness in the global market.”

“I am honored to be a recipient of this award, and as I continue my work in Congress, I will remain a strong supporter of the wind industry,” said King. “I know firsthand that the wind industry is a success story in Iowa, and I’m pleased that this success is now spreading across the country. Wind gives us reliable energy and creates jobs in our communities. Job creation and energy security are two of my top priorities and wind delivers on both.”

If Vilsack wants voters to see daylight between herself and King on energy policy, she’ll need to offer something beyond what she just released. I understand that IA-04 is a conservative-leaning district, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask a Democratic challenger to advocate some kind of conservation measures as part of a national energy strategy. I would call Vilsack’s energy policy timid, except that it takes chutzpah to roll out a plan like this right after you asked Democratic activists to make you a “grassroots all-star.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Republicans will caricature Democratic candidates as “big government liberals” no matter how much those Democrats avoid progressive policy stands. From Kevin Hall’s latest column for The Iowa Republican blog:

You have to love loathe laugh at Christie Vilsack’s energy plan. It’s exactly what you would expect from a dyed in the wool liberal: More government bureaucracy, more taxpayer subsidies … She wants to create a “National Energy Council” … Yep, the congressional wannabe who openly brags about loving anything done with taxpayer dollars wants a 15-member board to set energy policy for the country …

Vilsack naively claims “these would not be political appointments” … Pure, blithering nonsense … Her plan is to have the president make the appointments and the senate approves them. That is the very essence of political appointments. Obama would stack the group with green energy cronies, making the Solyndra fraud infinitesimal by comparison.

Hall glosses over the fact that King supports the same taxpayer subsidies for energy as Vilsack.

FEBRUARY 29 UPDATE: Vilsack’s campaign manager Jessica Vandenberg responded to my questions by e-mail. Vilsack did not include a federal renewable electricity standard in her plan because the “growth of wind and solar power over the past decade is an indication that federal and state incentives are working, and Iowa is a perfect example.”

Regarding the absence of any mention of conservation in the plan, VandenBerg wrote,

Christie believes that conservation and energy efficiency must continue to play a significant role in meeting our nation’s energy needs.  There is no question that efficiency is the first and best strategy.  However, that alone will not meet our nation’s growing needs for energy long-term.

If efficiency is the “first and best strategy,” I wonder why it’s not mentioned in the five-point plan.

Regarding government policies to promote nuclear power generation,

She supports developing all sources of domestic energy, including nuclear energy.  There is no perfect solution.  Every source of electricity has its benefits and drawbacks.  Therefore, the best solution is to develop diversity so that our nation does not become overly dependent on a single source.  Recognizing that there is risk involved in building any new type of electric generation, Christie supports policies that help balance that risk and encourage projects to move forward like federal loan guarantees for nuclear energy.

I asked how a National Energy Council would be able to enact a long-term plan without the power to bind future Congresses and presidential administrations.

Christie’s plan is to create an independent National Energy Council that oversees energy policy similar to how the Federal Reserve oversees monetary policy.  While you will never be able to completely remove politics from policymaking at the Federal level, there are ways to minimize the effects of partisan or regional politics.  Considering the importance of having a reliable and affordable source of energy for our nation, Christie believes we need a long-term plan that is based on the best available resources and technology instead of whose state has the most clout in Congress or whose party is in control.

  • I guess

    pols can never go wrong by railing against gas prices, but there’s not much Vilsack can do on the issue aside from counseling people on what they don’t want to hear: use less.

    Gas prices are determined by oil prices. In turn, oil is priced in US$, so a weak dollar drives up the price of oil. That’s one factor.

    Oil price futures reflect risk, so speculation about Iran/Europe is driving up (ultimately) gas prices. Recent increases are directly attributable to reports of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and the fluctuations in price over recent months reflects the back-and-forth between the US & Iran over Iran’s threat to shut down the Straits of Hormuz.

    Certainly the US can increase domestic supply by tapping the SPR or pols can advocate for “drill, drill” but then OPEC threatens to cut back production as a disincentive.

    Conservation may be nice for the pocketbook on an individual basis, but where the bottom line is on the price of gas is the “betting game” commodity traders play for which forecasts of US demand from the DOE EIA are central. This is where a national focus on conservation plays a role.

    What also keeps prices low is NAFTA agreements to keep tariffs low which is why Canada is our #1 source of oil and Mexico is #3.

    • good points

      on what influences the price of oil. I agree, people don’t want politicians to tell them to use less gasoline.

      I do think that people want to use less gas when the price goes up, though–we see people make adjustments (carpooling, combining errands etc) whenever the price spikes. More people would make more adjustments if alternatives to driving were more widely available. Vanpools from small Iowa towns to workplaces and shopping destinations would not be that hard to organize and could save people a significant amount of money. I think a surprising number of people would take advantage of those services if they were available.

      Also, in an aging district like IA-04, there will be a growing number of residents who can’t drive. A forward-thinking energy plan might address those needs.

  • Don't hold your breath

    waiting for the Vilsack campaign to respond to your query.  She hasn’t responded to my comments at her website some weeks ago despite an apparently automatic response promising a further response.

    • the funny thing is

      I have better luck getting an answer from Steve King’s staff than I do from Christie Vilsack’s.

    • I sent Christie a comment about her energy plan

      last Thursday. I said, “Maybe there should be a 6th point, energy conservation.”

      She has not replied.

      Steve King nearly always replies to my frequent emails to him. He generally ends his reply saying, “Although we apparently disagree about this issue, I appreciate you taking the time to contact me about the issue.”

  • If she is elected she will be another blue dog.

    Keystone pipeline.  Great.  Just great.  How to fire up your party activists.

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