Column | Address energy policy to benefit all

The Heritage FoundationMarch 1, 2014 

America is in the midst of a tremendous energy surge. Smart drilling technologies are supplying cheap and abundant natural gas that is saving families money on their energy bill and will likely drive the United States to be the world’s top oil producer by 2015. Developing our natural resources is creating jobs and growing the economic pie — not just in our energy-rich states but across the country. But we would be doing even better if the federal government wasn’t holding us back.

We need policymakers to allow the energy market to operate more freely. The right reforms would promote competition and innovation, avert wasted taxpayer dollars and effectively protect the environment. And those reforms center on three foundational principles: opening access, removing taxpayer-funded subsidies, and rolling back crushing regulations that come at great cost but provide little, if any, meaningful environmental benefit.

Production of oil and natural gas in the United States is booming, but that boom is largely occurring on state and private-owned lands. Large swaths of federal lands, and waters with abundant resources, are locked up by the government. We should open up leasing, exploration and production in more areas off America’s coasts, as well more federal lands. No, this doesn’t mean drilling in the Grand Canyon. There are plenty of other energy-rich options out West where the feds own the majority of the land.

Opening access isn’t just about unleashing the resources we own; it’s also about increasing access to international markets. The United States is now in a position to become an exporter of liquefied natural gas. Exporting natural gas would provide a tremendous benefit for the American economy. In a study commissioned by the Department of Energy, the economic consulting firm NERA estimated that “U.S. economic welfare consistently increases as the volume of natural gas exports increased. This includes scenarios in which there are unlimited exports.”

Energy should be treated like any other good we trade freely. We need to lift the artificial restrictions that prevent the United States from capturing that benefit. Another reform that will bolster America’s energy development: remove taxpayer-funded handouts that prop up companies or helps cushion their bottom lines. The reality is, the demand for energy isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The energy sources that can heat our homes or get our cars to work in an affordable, reliable way will stand to benefit tremendously. They won’t need any help from the taxpayer.

In fact, while subsidies may benefit certain companies in the near-term, they can cripple the long-term growth of an industry by creating a dependency on the government and directing focus away from innovating and lowering costs. It’s time we remove handouts and preferential treatment for all energy sources. We also need a regulatory overhaul, both to prevent devastating regulations and to create a transparent, fair regulatory process for all energy technologies to reach the market.

For example, even on federal lands where the private sector has access, production is dragging because of an unnecessarily slow permitting and environmental review process. It’s time we scrap the bureaucratic federal management of energy production on federal lands. We need to hand it over to state regulators, who have proven for decades they can successfully increase energy production and drive economic growth while protecting the environment.

Doing so would not only help the development of conventional fuels but bode well for renewable energy projects on federal lands that face similar hurdles but lack the finances to weather the storm of a drawn-out regulatory process.

When it comes to building new nuclear power plants, we need a regulator that can issue permits for new plants on a predictable basis at a reasonable cost. We also need one capable of regulating multiple types of reactors and other industrial facilities such as used fuel treatment plants. Creating competition within the nuclear industry can spark a renaissance and further revolutionize the energy sector.

And we need to slow the government’s role when it comes to the massive regulatory toll the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies are inflicting on the coal industry. We have over 500 years’ worth of coal at current consumption rates, but new regulations will prevent us from building new plants and force companies to prematurely decommission the ones we have — all for an unnoticeable environmental impact. The federal government’s assault on coal is really a senseless assault on affordable energy for American families. We need to reverse it.

No one knows for sure what the energy future may hold, but the past few years have provided a valuable lesson. When the government pulls the strings to pick winners and losers, we see taxpayer dollars wasted, higher energy prices and jobs lost. But when we witness the power of the entrepreneurial spirit and the free market, we see why we’re in the midst of a transformative time for America’s energy sector.

Nicolas Loris is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow in energy and environmental issues at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.

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