Hillary Clinton's Stale Energy Policy Positions

The challenge in writing an objective review of Hillary Clinton’s positions on energy policy is finding information available for analysis.  Clinton’s web page on energy issues from her 2008 campaign has been removed and now defaults to an error page.  Invitations to volunteer or donate money are plentiful on her website, while her positions on substantive issues are notably absent.

Many candidates are not on the record regarding their positions on major issues this early in the campaign.  Clinton, however, is not a newcomer.

Energy is not among the high-profile issues currently surrounding Clinton’s candidacy.  Nevertheless, understanding her positions on matters critical to economic security is important.  Pressing energy issues such as fracking, carbon taxes, and renewable energy require leadership.  Understanding a presidential candidate’s ideas on national energy policy is essential.

Cobbling together quotes from her 2008 campaign along with more recent sound bites reveals an agenda bereft of new ideas.

Policy Goals

Three major goals summarize Clinton's approach to energy policy.  The first is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.  Second, she advocates cutting foreign oil imports by two thirds from projected levels by 2030.  Finally, Clinton seeks to transform the United States from a carbon-based economy to a green economy focused on clean energy.

While specific targets and deadlines are good points for spirited discussion, the concepts delineated above are not inherently bad.  The challenge is achieving reasonable goals and targets in a free market without resorting to mandates and draconian laws and regulations.

Greenhouse Gases

Earth may be in a broad warming trend within a major ice age.  However, there are differing viewpoints on causation.  Predictably, Clinton considers carbon emissions culpable, as described in a 2007 speech calling for a carbon cap-and-trade program:

At the top of the world, you hear stories – affirmed by decades of scientific investigation – of changing weather patterns, melting ice, retreating glaciers, unprecedented wildfires, eroding coasts, and invasive species. You can see the evidence with your own eyes. There are no climate change skeptics inside the Arctic Circle.

Clinton favors carbon tax schemes as a way to compel switching from coal and oil to renewable and alternative energy sources.  There is no substantive difference between Clinton and Obama on this cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions.

Texas’s electricity market provides an excellent example of potential impacts of this policy. 

Texas has more wind power generation than any other state and more than twice as much as California does.  However, due to wind power’s intermittent nature, Texas still uses coal-fired power plants to satisfy base generation needs.  The proposed Clean Power Plan, consistent with Clinton’s views, would impose carbon dioxide fees and limits on power generation.  This plan would likely result in retiring several coal-fired generation units.  By 2020, Texas electricity rates could increase by as much as 20%.  Increasing costs of essential commodities adversely affects all consumers, regardless of income levels.  Clinton’s support of carbon cap-and-trade could have adverse consequences on consumers.

Reducing Oil Imports

Energy independence plays well across a broad political spectrum.  Greater control over oil supplies dampens geopolitical shockwaves at the gas pump.  But a key problem with Clinton’s policy goal of reducing oil imports is one of sincerity.

Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have reportedly contributed as much as $40 million to the Clinton Foundation since 2001.  These oil-producing countries are unlikely to support the United States reducing its crude oil imports by 67% over the next 15 years.  Even without these questionable donations, one must consider potential impacts of this policy on strategic relationships with those countries.

This goal would also be more credible if its supporting initiatives were practical.   For example, supply-side initiatives could include passing legislation enabling construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.  This pipeline project supports transportation of American oil, not just Canadian oil.  Other supply initiatives could include responsible development of oil reserves on federal lands and expanding nuclear power generation. 

Demand-side initiatives should focus on programs that facilitate fuel-switching to exploit plentiful shale gas reserves.  Reductions of imported oil cannot rely solely on increases in vehicle fuel efficiency standards and conservation awareness programs.  These game-changing supply and demand ideas were absent in 2008 and are unlikely to appear in 2016.

Green Economy

Renewable energy is a key component of any discussion on moving to a green economy.  In her 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton advocated appropriating oil company profits to fund investment in renewable energy and alternative fuels.  This strategy amounted to private-sector subsidies for uneconomic and underperforming energy technologies.

Residential solar market penetration was minuscule in 2008 compared to where it stands today.  China has grabbed approximately 80% of global solar manufacturing.  Cheap supply, supported by Chinese government subsidies, has reduced panel prices by around 75% since Clinton’s last campaign.  The Obama administration recently raised tariffs on solar imports from China and Taiwan in an attempt to protect domestic manufacturing.

Naturally, tariffs increased panel costs and set off alarms in the booming residential solar installation industry.  A decision must be made on whether to protect American manufacturers or installers.

In the 2007 AFL-CIO democratic primary forum, Clinton stated her intention to create millions of new jobs in renewable energy.  She also indicated that clean energy jobs would stay in the United States and not be outsourced.  In fact, most job creation in this industry has occurred with solar installation companies, while manufacturing has been largely outsourced.

As the campaign progresses, there will inevitably be more disclosure from candidates as they seek to differentiate themselves from their opponents.  Clinton’s energy polices may be a rephrasing of tired themes from 2008, or there might be a move to more centrist views, in classic Clinton fashion.  Suffice it to say she has not generally differentiated her energy positions from the current administration and has not offered fresh ideas.

Charlie Hewitt has 25 years of experience across a broad spectrum of energy topics ranging from coal mining to electricity choice.