It looked like a reverse make-me-do-it – President Obama in his State of the Union address saying don’t-do-that-again to some of his most committed supporters. An array of groups had written to him just two weeks earlier about the failings of an “all of the above” energy policy, and the first words in his speech regarding energy and the environment were, “The "all of the above" energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working…”
This high-visibility affirmation came after Presidential counselor John Podesta had already sent a response to the groups that never mentioned “all of the above.” It touched on the subject only in a single phrase, saying the President “understands the need to consider a balanced approach to all forms of energy development, including oil and gas production.”
What kind of balance was he talking about – volumes, BTU’s, dollars, carbon? Balanced is good in concept, much better than unbalanced, but otherwise undefined. A default generic meaning, seen in much media coverage, is equal treatment of all sides. But presenting as equal things that are most definitely not is not good policy, news or energy. In a market where individual fuels cover vastly different portions of their costs, a strategy to treat them all the same is highly biased. It lets climate-forcing fossil fuels into the mix without regard to their earth-transforming impacts.
Equal treatment is not good policy, and it’s not the President’s policy either, as his climate action plan and remarks introducing it make clear. He is working to reduce fossil fuel use and accelerate the transition to clean energy. So why go with “all of the above?” It gives unbounded latitude – Keystone fits, everything fits – but it’s costly. It keeps people guessing, something the Fed has eschewed for good reason, and it works against rallying the public for his true objectives. It also makes no one happy – oil interests see it as bogus, climate advocates as alarming.
Enter the Powering Forward Plan from the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, with an apt recommendation:
Develop methods for accurately counting the full costs of various energy choices, including pollution and health care costs that have been “externalized” in the past. Use these methods to establish priorities for federal support of energy resources and direct it to the “best of the above” rather than “all of the above”.
Correct, unambiguous, memorable – and superior. Oil companies don’t do “all of the above.” They set criteria for what projects to pursue, they rank, and they pick from the top. Policy means choice.
And words count. “All of the above” gives the President latitude, but does not do him justice. He has set a higher standard and he needs to raise that banner and live by it. As he noted in his State of the Union, our children’s children will be looking back on his energy legacy. “All of the above” will speak loudly to succeeding, and particularly not-succeeding, generations. A recapitulation that sounds a lot like capitulation is a mistake.