Do Conservatives Hate Biofuels?

October 10, 2013 |

CleantechConservativeWhat are the Top 10 Ways to Increase the Love?

By Douglas L. Faulkner, “The Cleantech Conservative”

I am often asked to explain conservative views about biofuels. Some do passionately, seeing biofuels as a failed over-reach by Uncle Sugar.

But, I believe they are a distinct – – though very vocal – – minority on the right. That is the positive view. The fact is that most conservatives though just hate all of the economic and regulatory baggage of big government programs and yes, the policies and politics of this Administration as well.

In my many discussions with my conservative colleagues, it is clear there is a strong consensus against federal mandates, subsidies, crony capitalism and government manipulation of the marketplace that are, unfortunately, strongly associated with the biofuels industry.

In the years to come, finding a pathway out of the government heavy-handedness, accompanied by a long-term, sophisticated and aggressive campaign to reverse the negative perceptions will drain much of the vitriol out of this political issue, at least from the right side of the political equation.

The right has traditionally been much more friendly as a whole to the oil and gas industries, although one must hasten to note that Big Oil’s largesse has been showered through the years on both sides of the aisle. And more recently, the right has been more attuned to the complaints of the food industry about the alleged impact of corn starch ethanol on its food prices and livestock producers’ complaints over the impact on feed prices.

One irony, perhaps, is that the electoral base of the GOP and conservatives, which is centered on the less-populated counties and rural communities (and where Mitt Romney excelled) is also exactly where biofuels are being produced and where the industry’s promise is well-understood and accepted.

I should also add that observers tend to forget there is a sizeable hostility to biofuels on the left as well that is potentially more threatening because it is aimed directly at the biofuels industry – – especially its foundations in production agriculture and forestry – – not at the supporting policy and regulatory framework.

How Did We Get Here?

To begin, we have to acknowledge what happened with the stimulus and the following budget ramp-ups at the start of this Administration, vis-à-vis energy policy. Through several previous Administrations there had effectively been a rough “all of the above” approach. Spending on green energy had been gradually, but consistently growing and was given a significant boost under George W. Bush.

But, President Obama broke the mold, giving the left what it had long dreamed about: a Kennedy-esque Moon Shot or a World War II-type Manhattan Project to take renewable energy and efficiency technologies to a whole new level.

The long-term result, though one I think unintended, was: a high-water mark for federal spending. Obama’s approach unleashed a tsunami of debt, red tape and antipathy to fossil fuels, right about the time when, much to the surprise of all of the experts, oil and gas production rocketed upwards.

Occurring roughly simultaneously, our body politic had been (and continues) growing more polarized, with deeper reds and blues across the country, both in Congress and especially in state capitols. Effectively, the old consensus on energy between the right and the left has been obliterated. At the same time, both ends of the political spectrum are asking, “Why does the biofuels industry need any more help?”

Tough Times Ahead

With the old paradigm and its attendant arguments promoting biofuels fading fast and the new trends rapidly emerging and morphing into what would have been odd alliances, the biofuels industry must aggressively develop and drive new rationales and strategies.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the seemingly inexorable rising tide of imported oil had already peaked in the middle of the last Bush Administration and has steadily dropped since. This is largely due to the unexpected surge of fracked oil and gas and the lingering effects of the recession, with an accompanying nudge from biofuels.

But, other, larger trends are unfolding that may carry even bigger change: the driving habits and technologies of the American public. Some are even labeling this new era, “Peak Cars.” There is in fact a slowdown in the miles driven by the public, and automakers are trying to plan ahead for the new Administration fuel efficiency standards of roughly 55 miles per gallon by 2025 for personal vehicles.

At the same time opinion polls show the U.S. public overwhelmingly wants action on jobs and poverty rather than a focus on climate change.

While there has been some progress on bringing down the annual deficit, there has been no progress on the real eight hundred pound gorilla lurking:  the total long-term federal debt, heavily weighted toward entitlements, which some recently accounted as being over $100 trillion and climbing.  The really bad news is nobody really knows for sure how bad it really is.

As the current fights over the 2014 budget, the debt ceiling and the Farm Bill show, the anti-red ink sentiment has not dimmed in the House of Representatives, or at least in conservative circles.  Government green energy programs will face significant pressure for years to come.

10 Ways to Build the Love

My prescriptions are all about accepting and adjusting to these new realities.

1. First, know what you want – – and when. I have long advocated that biofuels industry leaders start immediately to think through the policy options, particularly with regard to the Renewable Fuels Standard, and set your own priorities before others do it for you. It certainly doesn’t look likely that the RFS will be repealed in this Congress, but reform is still very much alive (see the trial balloon recently floated by the petroleum lobby); and, the Congress elected next year may present even more tricky terrain.

2. Look beyond the current RFS targets to the 2030s and 2040s when global oil supplies may be tightening again and demand may be changing and accelerating as world population changes and grows.

3. Keep an eye on the bubbling regulatory debate over toxic air emissions from oil-derived fuel versus the clean octane benefits of ethanol.

4. Selectively engage with conservative leaders, candidates, groups and issues. Ask yourselves when you can declare success and wean off of federal life support. And, above all, emphasize themes that resonate with conservatives, like nurturing technological change and entrepreneurial animal spirits.

5. Build other new alliances, remembering that politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. Reach out to the auto manufacturers, for example, as they wrestle with regulatory challenges.

6. Move away from high-philosophy, 20th Century arguments about national security and rural development to nuts-and-bolts business talk about profits, sales and jobs, especially jobs, like other emerging industries.

7. Conservatives, dating back to the mid-90s and the Gingrich Congresses, love to fund basic R&D. So, move away from the more recent emphasis on commercial assistance and toward setting future technical priorities for our lawmakers.

8. Focus on cold facts and scientific truths, openly sourced, rather than the emotion and political maneuvering characterizing our green energy policy debates in recent years.

9. Spend more time on the red states in the Mississippi Delta and the Southeast as fertile ground for your financial and political investments.

10. Keep one eye focused on international developments, because biofuels are moving toward global commodity trading, with new opportunities for sales of fuels, technology and expertise to developing countries.

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