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Jeb Bush's low-energy energy plan

The right fossil fuels for America, from the right Bush.
The right fossil fuels for America, from the right Bush.
(Shutterstock)

Jeb Bush is seeking, Politico says, to "add policy heft to his campaign." So he's released an energy plan. Of sorts.

The plan is just over 1,000 words long, fitting easily on one page. If that's too much policy heft for you, there's also a convenient summary that comes in at under 300 words and fits even more easily on one page.

As energy policy, it's mostly vaporware. Even if it were all put in place tomorrow, it would have very little effect on the larger trends and forces at work in the energy world. But as politics, it is quite revealing.

In economic policy, Republican orthodoxy never changes, no matter how the world might change around it. Whether there's a tech boom, a recession, low deficits, high deficits, low unemployment, high unemployment — the answer is always tax cuts on upper income brackets. The same is true of energy: whether clean energy is expensive or cheap, whether oil prices are high or low, whether climate change is a pressing issue or not — the answer is always more fossil fuel extraction.

And so, just as Jeb Bush's tax plan features the same debt-financed tax cuts his big brother pushed when in office, his energy policy features the same unstinting support for fossil fuels. And his is the consensus position; there is no disagreement within the GOP on energy.

The reason GOP energy policy is so predictable

Republican energy policy proposals are created under two constraints, which together render them utterly predictable.

The first is conservative ideology. Over the last few decades, conservative preference for "small government" has become more and more rigid and simplistic. It has reached the point now where the basic conservative reflex is to decry the government doing anything — taxing, spending, or regulating, which together pretty much exhaust the possibilities for domestic policy.

So GOP candidates can't promise to do anything when they take over the federal government. All they can promise is to undo things — reduce taxes and spending and repeal regulations.

Yet the public has goals and desires. And they want their politicians to help achieve those goals and desires. Since Republicans can't promise to do anything proactive, they are forced to promise that undoing things would achieve those goals and desires, whatever they may be. They have to pretend (or, who knows, maybe really believe) that government is not only a problem, but every problem, the sole reason the public is not getting what it wants, whether it's cleaner energy or more jobs.

These plans are always advanced under a heavy sheen of forward-looking, heroic rhetoric about dynamism and growth and right-to-rise, but underneath, the policy is always the same: cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing social spending, and unwinding regulations that inhibit corporate profits.

jeb bush

In Florida, they call him Jeb! because he earned it.

(Shutterstock)

That constraint alone might yield a somewhat libertarian energy policy. But it's not the only constraint. The other is the enormous power of fossil fuel money within the GOP, which shapes policy as surely as any ideology. Thus: only taxes on fossil fuels may be reduced; only spending on clean energy may be reduced; only regulations that constrain fossil fuels may be repealed. And so it goes, in practice. ("Jeb Bush Energy Plan Most Benefits His Top Donors," notes the International Business Times.)

Bush's energy plan, substantially similar to what other GOP candidates have said about energy, shows what is possible within those constraints. It's not much.

The Bush plan's four-pronged strategy for boosting fossil fuels

Here are the four planks of the plan.

  1. Lift Restrictions on Exports of Oil and Natural Gas: For some reason, lifting the ban on crude oil exports has become a cause célèbre among Republicans, even though its effects are likely to be modest. It would help some crude producers and hurt some refineries (which benefit from lower domestic oil prices), but in the grand scheme of things, its impact on the US economy and energy situation would be dwarfed by, say, another big swing in oil prices. Similarly, allowing export of liquid natural gas would have mixed effects. It might boost the fortunes of some fracking companies, but it might also raise the price of US natural gas, which could hurt domestic manufacturing. There's also the distinct possibility that there's not much market for exported LNG at all, so lifting the ban might make no difference. As this Michael Levi study demonstrates, "either way, all of the macro numbers are pretty small." This is red meat to conservatives but marginal, at best, as energy policy.
  2. Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline: By now, this debate has been done to death. (Brad Plumer covered it pretty comprehensively here, if you still need a primer.) Suffice to say, GOP claims about the pipeline's effects on GDP and employment are almost comically exaggerated — and even if they were true, would still be comparatively tiny in an economy America's size. This has become a symbolic football, but as energy policy, it just doesn't matter much. Low oil prices are crushing Canadian tar sands oil; those effects vastly outweigh any effect the pipeline might have.
  3. Reduce Overregulation: This section is mostly hand-waving, except for the specific promise to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan (something every GOP candidate has pledged). Bush does reference his bigger plan on overregulation, which was released last week. That plan would effectively make federal climate regulation impossible, among its other malign effects. It would have likely have bigger effects on energy than anything in Bush's energy plan, mainly in service of further entrenching the fossil fuel status quo.
  4. Defer to Willing States and Tribes: This is code for allowing states to drill and mine in federally protected areas, which would be good for (specific companies in) those states, but would make only a modest difference in overall US production.

That's it.

a bush.

A bush.

(Shutterstock)

What's left out of Bush's plan

Bush's plan is mostly political, a selection of conservative hot-button issues that would have only marginal effects on energy. It would not "unleash an energy revolution" or even much affect the energy revolutions already underway.

However, it is notable for what it omits. As Darren Goode points out, there's no mention of the fact that Bush himself opposed offshore drilling as governor of Florida. There's no mention of climate change at all, despite the (tepid, hedged) attention Bush has given to that issue in the past. There's nothing about clean energy, which is pretty remarkable for an energy plan in 2015.

And there's no mention of repealing fossil fuel subsidies, which Bush was touting just a few months ago. Or is there? Here's an oblique reference:

In addition, we must create a level playing field for all energy sources including, but not limited to, nuclear, renewables, coal, natural gas, oil and alternative fuels. We unnecessarily drive up energy costs on Americans when we play favorites and suppress the dynamism of free markets.

This is ... something, I guess. It'll be interesting to see if Bush sticks with it. (Spoiler: no GOP Congress will ever repeal oil subsidies. Indeed Congressional Republicans already declined to do so. Most talk about "not choosing winners" is code for repealing assistance to fossil fuel competitors. Also, repealing all energy subsidies would be both impossible and a terrible idea.)

To me, the incoherence of the contemporary conservative approach to energy is perfectly represented by this paragraph:

Further, producers and consumers must have better access to new technologies such as "intelligent" electricity management devices, unconventional transportation fuels, advanced nuclear power designs and cutting-edge energy conservation methods. We must remove burdensome government regulations, subsidies and other barriers that get in the way of adopting and exploiting such innovations.

#lolsob, as the kids say. All those new technologies are indeed great. And to the extent they've caught on at all in the face of the entrenched market power of fossil fuel incumbents, it is thanks to regulations and subsidies. If they are to grow from niche to mainstream technologies, it will be thanks to regulations and subsidies. In many cases, markets don't even exist for these technologies and must be kickstarted by policy. The idea that cutting edge energy technologies are held back by "burdensome government regulations" is just fantastical. But it's the one hammer Bush has got, so everything looks like a nail.

Bush promises to "release additional proposals that will complement our status as an energy superpower by revitalizing our position as the superpower of energy innovation." Among other things, he says "we can further accelerate the discovery of game-changing technologies by boosting funding for high-priority basic research and increasing the effectiveness of our national labs."

Federal energy research funding is indeed abysmally low. If Bush made increasing it a priority, that would be something genuinely new and laudable in the GOP energy world. But if it's just a bunch of new tax breaks for "clean coal" and fracking, it will only demonstrate again how little is possible given the constraints under which GOP energy policy is made.