The Cleantech Conservative

January 24, 2012 |

Today in Biofuels Digest we are delighted to initiate our (US) Election 2012 coverage with a new interactive column written from the politically conservative point of view.

Interactive, because your reactions and perspective can be expressed via our LinkedIn group site, here – where we hope to conduct a lively discussion all throughout the year about the proper scope and role of government in the next few years of industrial biotech’s ascent.

“The Cleantech Conservative” is written by Douglas L. Faulkner, who in the Bush Administration served as Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture, Acting Under Secretary of Agriculture, where he led negotiations on the Energy Title in the Farm Bill; and as Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, where he led the development of the National Biofuels Action Plan. He now serves as president of Leatherstocking LLC, a clean-technology advisory firm.

Policies for bioenergy in an era of austerity

By Douglas L. Faulkner

What should be the priorities for federal government support for bioenergy, in an era of fiscal austerity and a broken consensus on energy policy?

My goal is develop interactively with you, bioenergy thought leaders, a set of low-cost, industry-led policy proposals to be shared at the end of this year with the election winners as “An Open Letter to the President and Congress.”  To get there, I am interested in hearing what you may want to share or suggest.

My focus is post-election, because this year is frankly a transitional period of time, when progress on solving our national issues will be difficult and slow, as major elections loom to break (or maybe reinforce) political stalemates.  And, if the past such discussions are any example, we will need the bulk of the year to cut down the weeds and center a consensus around some solid policy prescriptions.

These articles will carry no hidden agenda.  I firmly believe that all of us who love this sector and see its incredible promise need to come together to forge a new bi-partisan pathway, to inform a new crop of decision-makers about these emerging markets and technologies and secure a solid level of support for the critical make-or-break years in the middle of this decade.

My Perspective

Yes, I was a senior appointee in the George W. Bush Administration at both Energy and Agriculture and my political leanings as a life-long conservative Republican are no secret.  But, I also have over fifteen years of experience as a career civil servant and a political leader as well as stints in both the public and private sectors promoting green energy, with a special passion for bioenergy.

Before the 2010 elections, I described in public comments the coming wave of new fiscal conservatives who were coming to Washington, determined to tackle rising debts and the ever-increasing reach of the federal government.  Now, this year’s national elections threaten to be overshadowed by the rapidly-rising levels of federal debt (recently topping $15 trillion) and other indicators of a looming fiscal crisis.

This situation coincides with – – or perhaps is a significant contributing factor to – – a greatly-reduced appetite for federal assistance into green energy, and the concurrent raging arguments over increasing fossil fuel production

My conclusion:  No matter which party controls the White House, the Senate and the House when the votes are counted in November, our elected officials will still face enormous and unprecedented financial, budgetary and economic pressures as well as a wide gulf separating various positions regarding federal energy policies.

An early barometer in this debate will occur as the Congressional Agricultural Committees restart their work to develop the next Farm Bill and its energy title in the coming weeks.

Double Down, or Shift to the Private Sector?

Some very big names have called for doubling down on the bets made by this Administration, seeking an even greater infusion of taxpayer money for green  R&D investments.   Other pundits have described moving from a decades-long  era of prosperity marked by generous doling out of federal funds to a new, equally-long era of austerity with government taking back money from its populace, especially in the area of entitlements, to prevent fiscal instabilities from threatening the future of our Republic.

I am in the latter camp and thus believe we cannot even contemplate another, new “moon shot” for green energy for many years.  In fact, we should instead prepare and plan for greatly-reduced federal spending for a generation or more.

We should readily accept that green energy programs overall will not nor should not be exempt from federal  budget belt-tightening.  Even as the country wrestles with the long-term challenge of reducing our reliance on imported oil, the private sector must start to wean itself from decades of reliance on federal aid, from automatically turning first to Uncle Sam for help.

This could lead to new models for private-public partnerships and even recognition of the efficacy of private markets in allocating resources.  We should also look for new perspectives on contributions from state capitals, while keeping in mind that they too face similarly daunting fiscal prospects.

In the final analysis, the most important thing that the leadership mix that emerges from the next election could do to unleash the entrepreneurial spirits in these emerging industries would be to get the economy growing again on a fiscally-sound basis.

This does not mean though that budget reductions should be applied indiscriminately across-the-board in the renewables and efficiency arena:  some sectors, like bioenergy, could be spared deep cuts; some subsectors, like R&D on energy crops/trees, could even see modest increases over time.  Even in a dramatically-reduced spending environment, the next President and Congress must make choices in setting political priorities and programmatic direction.

The private sector in particular needs to recognize those opportunities and present a clear consensus about its own priorities, about using limited federal funds to gain critical mass in key areas.  This will be a time for taking a stand together to repair, restore and rejuvenate the economic foundation we all stand upon.

The Role of the States

In a larger sense of course, this discussion mirrors the bigger debate unfolding in the Presidential race:  what is the proper role for the federal government in the next four years and beyond to promote economic growth.  I personally believe that we are in the early stages of an historic shift in emphasis away from Washington, DC, to the states, industry, academia and non-profits for leadership in promoting growth in global bioenergy markets.   I am confident that we will all do our part.

Our efforts should not be limited to just funding as so often happens in Washington.  It should also encompass reforming policy, regulation and even program efficiency (i.e., how well tax dollars are spent, measuring the ease, speed and costs to outsiders for participation.)  For example, can anyone defend how expensiveand cumbersome  federal solicitations have become?

What’s Next?

I plan to present my views periodically for your reflection and comment.  This will not be just voting and tallying up scores, but a process interactively guided by you and your suggestions that, hopefully, will be accompanied by tested, refined and reported (transparent) approaches.

I certainly don’t have all the answers but, like you, my instincts point to the critical need for building a new national consensus.  Think of it as a virtual experiment, maybe with some faint echo of the visioning and roadmapping undertaken in the late Clinton Administration for biobased products – – but this time it won’t be driven by Washington officeholders.

So, to kick off our electronic dialogue, let me post two questions for you:
1.     Do you agree with my premise of reduced federal support for bioenergy?
2.    And, if so, as leading members of the private sector, are you willing to help shape the public sector’s agenda?   Click here to comment, and discuss.

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