Friday, July 18, 2008

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Partisan “experts”

NPR’s Morning Edition had an item on Wednesday about the major-party candidates’ energy plans. They talked with a professor from MIT:

Expert Assesses Candidates’ Energy Plans

Morning Edition, July 16, 2008 — Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his Republican challenger John McCain have proposals for dealing with the tight supply of oil. Steve Inskeep talks with Bob Pindyck, a professor of economics and finance at MIT, about whether the candidates’ energy plans would make a difference as Americans face rising energy costs.
An economics professor, talking about energy? They don’t make clear why he’s an “expert” in this field, but, still, I eagerly listened to Professor Pindyck’s analysis of the two candidates’ plans.

He likes an idea that John McCain supports, of removing the tariff on Brazilian ethanol (made from sugar cane) for adding to gasoline, to provide a cheaper alternative to making our own ethanol from corn. Barack Obama opposes that idea, and Prof. Pindyck figures it’s political pressure from middle-America corn farmers, looking to keep the price of corn high, that’s the reason for his opposition.

I’m not convinced. I see, now, where his expertise is: he’s looking at it from an economics point of view, which is, after all, one of the primary issues right now — the price of fuel. But he’s just speculating on Senator Obama’s reasons for opposition; he says, “I think that, politically, it’s hard”. Has he considered other reasons? Does he have any statements from Barack Obama about this?

When asked directly about his opinions on Senator Obama’s plans, Professor Pindyck begins, “You know, it’s all very vague.” Oh, that’s not good; vague is not good. Tell me more about that. Prof. Pindyck does:

He talks about providing subsidies to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and it’s not clear what those subsidies would look like, where they would go. And in addition, it’s not going to have a large impact, and any impact it has is many years away. So that’s the big problem with that.

Hm. Subsidizing the development of renewable energy sources doesn’t sound vague at all. And it sounds to me like a fine start. But you know what does sound vague? The statement that “it’s not going to have a large impact.” Any more detail on that, Professor? Anything to back it up?

Well, Steve Inskeep does press him on that point:

NPR: What do you mean, "not going to have a large impact"? Because we were talking the other day to a guy who’s investing in wind farms, and he’s saying there’s enough wind in the Dakotas to run the entire United States.

Pindyck: Well, that’s a nice assertion. I’m not sure that’s true, though. Look, wind energy to produce electricity is something that’s going to be part of our energy mix in the future. It’s not going to produce all our electricity; it’ll produce something. It has its own environmental issues. As you might know, there are proposals to build wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts. There are a lot of groups that oppose that, because they think it won’t look nice, it’ll destroy the view.

I’ll note that he hasn’t answered the “large impact” question, but has just focused on one aspect of using wind power. Perhaps that’s because he’s not an expert on renewable energy sources, energy production, or environmental issues. So his contention is that subsidies to developers of wind power will not have a large impact because wind power will “produce something”, but, he implies, not much. It’s a nice assertion, but, again, he doesn’t support his statement.

He then goes on to talk about increased use of nuclear energy — which John McCain supports, and Barack Obama does not. Are we seeing a pattern, here?

I have to include one more quote from the Professor:

There are very few ways you can produce electricity without using fossil fuels, and nuclear is one of them.
Well, yes, that’s true — and, in fact, I, too, think we have to continue using nuclear power as we work on developing other sources. But he completely dismisses the other renewable energy sources. There are a few ways you can produce electricity without using fossil fuels, and wind, water, and solar generation are some of them. It’s OK to tell us that research and development in those areas is not practical, but you have to back such a statement up. Otherwise, you’re just being vague.

What a misdirected, misdescribed article! There’s nothing wrong with having this guy on the radio and hearing what he has to say. But don’t bill him as an “expert” who’s making an “assessment” of the two sides. Here, let me rewrite the headline and the lede:

McCain Supporter Opines On Candidates’ Energy Plans

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his Republican challenger John McCain have proposals for dealing with the tight supply of oil. Steve Inskeep talks with Bob Pindyck, a supporter of John McCain, about what he thinks of the candidates’ energy plans as Americans face rising energy costs.

There. That’s better.

4 comments:

Katie said...

All I have to say is -- Pindyck?

Upstate said...

I started to post a comment, but got rather distracted by Katie's avatar.

To get back to the subject, economics does play a large role in the discussion, at least if you are a corn farmer, producer of large power plant equipment or an oil company. Corn farmers vote, and OEMs make campaign contibutions as do the seven sister oil companies. Wind and solar are mere emerging technologies, although they hold large promise, while oil production is a well established cash cow. This will certainly skew the discussion.

The real solution is one that, unfortunately, will hit the American driver square in the pocketbook. Tax the predominant energy source (oil) to offset the costs of military action to maintain the supply, while also developing alternative, renewable domestic supplies (wind and solar).

Limited nuclear production makes sense until you factor in the public NIMBY factor. It will take at least a decade to site the plants and possibly another decade to build them, too late.

Consider this, America defeated the Axis, beat the Soviets to the moon and then buried them by harnessing our economic muscle and technical know how, two of our greatest strenghts. We now need an Apollo program for energy development.

We need to be mature enough, as a nation, to sacrifice current gratification for future economic and geopolitical security.

The Ridger, FCD said...

It would be nice, too, if we could stop throwing the rest of the world to the wolves so we can keep the sleigh nicely appointed.

scouter573 said...

>> As you might know, there are proposals to build wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts. There are a lot of groups that oppose that, because they think it won’t look nice, it’ll destroy the view.

Oh, I see. This is in contrast to Senator McCain's proposal to drill for oil off the coast. In contrast to the wind farm, an oil platform fleet is so attractive will attract the tourists? Or is it just convenient that the oil is off Florida's coast instead of Massachusetts' coast?

I think Barry got it right early on - this guy is an expert only because he was willing to speak on tape when the reporter needed quotes.

More to the point, it seems economically quaint to think of shipping ethanol/methanol to the US from Brazil - rather assumes the fuel costs do not contribute to shipping expenses. That kind of thinking is so last-year. And nukes are great - until you look at the economic costs of safe disposal. People have been picking on Nevada recently - let's find a centrally located place like... Texas (joke!).

The cost to the pocketbook can be mitigated. If we convert from expensive imported petroleum (because domestic supplies are completely inadequate to the need), then we can spend the money here constructing renewable rigs instead of spending it overseas where it builds islands and hotels.

I am trying to restrain myself, but I really must point out that a lot of our oil money goes to bad guys operating out of nefarious parts of the world. Hotbeds of terrorism, anyone?