Visualizing US Energy Policy

There is a rather antiquated belief that the oil and gas industry drives US energy policy. This is usually framed in people’s minds as a pleading oil and gas lobbyist making sure that the US stays hooked on oil. While this image may be accurate with regards to the US coal industry, which does indeed have heavy influence on Congress and policy, it’s much less the case with oil and gas. And here’s why: The US automobile industry and the US highway construction industry performs all the heavy lifting one could require, to ensure that US primary energy usage stays overweighted to liquid fuel consumption. These two industries dwarf any other influence on US energy policy through their widespread distribution throughout 50 US states, and Congress.

One of the first major acts of our new President and Congress in 2009 was to invest over 100 billion in the auto manufacturing complex, and the highway construction complex. US energy policy, therefore, is not so much about the oil and gas industry or even the coal industry. US energy policy, which is essentially about how we will use energy in the future, is guided most by our transport–not our powergrid–system. It is the height of either irony, or absurdity, therefore that the US climate change movement has incorrectly and repeatedly chosen to focus on the powergrid as the lever to effect carbon reduction. Neither on a primary usage basis nor especially on an emissions basis does the powergrid exceed transport as the problem. The President and Congress, and especially US Governors, remain committed to investing in the Automobile-US Highway Construction complex. Here is President Obama just last month:

So, GM and Chrysler went through painful restructurings: ones that required enormous sacrifices on the part of all involved.  Many believed this was a fool’s errand.  Many feared we would be throwing good money after bad: that taxpayers would lose most of their investment and that these companies would soon fail regardless.  But one year later, the outlook is very different. In fact, the industry is recovering at a pace few thought possible.

Overall energy policy in the US is depicted nicely in the above painting by Hubert Blanz, from his Roadshow series. Although fanciful and exaggerated, there is a helpful truth in the exaggeration: The US  does precisely zero to transition away from automobile and highway transport, and quantifiably, undertakes nothing but token investment in other means of conveyance. Meanwhile, we continue to plan for massive, new investment in our highways. It’s legitimate to be aggrieved that the global, and US, oil and gas industry no doubt spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to restrain regulation over extraction. There’s no argument that this is the case, but this skews more towards environmental policy–not overall energy policy–which governs the most important factor of all: demand. Your President, your Congress, and your Governors are doing everything they possibly can to make sure that the demand for oil here in the US, and dependency on oil here in the US, rolls onward.