Published on March 1st, 2012 | by Stephen Lacey


Obama’s Algae Biofuels Communications Problem (i.e. Leaving Out Global Warming)

March 1st, 2012 by  

When did “innovation” become a dirty word in American politics?

I suppose it was right about the time when college aspirations became snobbish, when electing a presidential candidate could magically reduce the global price of oil, or when environmental protection became a “phony theology.”

Welcome to the 2012 campaign circus, arguably the most bizarre in history.

And now, adding to the long list of oddball attacks, Republican politicians and media pundits are launching an assault on President Obama’s offer of $14 million for research on algae-based biofuels — calling for a “pond scum czar” and offering the President “the algae in my fish tank” for this “goofy gas.”

Really? Yes, really. A $14 million grant for an innovative, abundant fuel that could potentially displace 17% of petroleum use in the country is now the focus of a coordinated political attack. It seems innovation is now becoming a politically untouchable word.

Well, not completely. Innovation just means different things to different people.

For those concerned about finite resources and maintaining a liveable planet, innovation means finding entirely new, clean sources of energy. And putting $14 million toward research that could spur revolutionary changes in our fuel use is a complete no-brainer.

But those concerned with preserving the status quo — particularly those who don’t believe that global warming is a problem — see innovation within an entirely different context. To them, innovation means tar sands, oil shale and unconventional gas. Indeed, due to the rising price of conventional oil and the changing economics of these unconventional fossil resources, there are a lot of advances taking place in these sectors.

And that is why the Obama Administration is getting hammered on algae. By talking about these technologies from an innovation and jobs perspective and failing to address them within the context of global warming, Obama sets himself up for criticism from those who simply want to access more unconventional fossil fuels. They ask: what’s wrong with innovation in oil and gas?

This presents a serious contradiction in messaging that needs to be remedied.

Severin Borenstein, co-director of the University of California Energy Institute, recently published an op-ed piece that illustrated this point well:

[I disagree with some of his conclusions, but I largely agree with his thesis.]

Sure, the cost of low-carbon energy technologies — wind, solar, biofuels and others — is coming down. But improvements in technologies for extracting fossil fuels are making it harder for renewables to reach cost parity. Scientific breakthroughs are hard to predict: still, the most likely scenario is that domestically produced fossil fuels will be the lowest-cost way to meet most of our energy needs and achieve greater energy security for years to come.

The employment argument also falls short. During a recession, it makes sense for the government to promote job creation with subsidies and federal expenditures, some of which may be targeted at specific industries. In the longer run, however, economists are almost unanimous that the economy creates more and better jobs when companies operate in the most cost-effective way. If we don’t count the cost of environmental damage, that’s likely to mean carbon-based energy for generations.

The only compelling argument for policies to boost renewables and reduce fossil fuels is the environment. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are the primary cause of climate change. Most believe there is a real risk that the changes could cause major ecosystem disruptions, including more frequent droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires, as well as rising sea levels, more conflicts over resources and accelerated species extinction.

I certainly don’t think the “only compelling” argument for renewables is the environment. Renewable sources of energy have an extraordinary diverse range of benefits: they can offset fossil fuel price swings; they can localize energy production; they help create high-paid, export-heavy jobs; and yes, they, offer new innovation challenges to companies and universities around the country.

I also think it’s clear that renewables (mostly electricity technologies) are still chasing the record-low prices in natural gas and won’t be killed off. (See: Top Three Reasons Cheap Natural Gas Won’t Kill Renewable Energy).

Finally, because unconventional fuels like tar sands and oil shale require massive amounts of water and natural gas for extraction, there are very real concerns about how water shortages and an increase in natural gas prices will impact the economic viability of these resources.

But ultimately, I agree with Bornstein’s basic point. Given the surge of political interest in unconventional fossil fuels, sticking simply to innovation and job-creation talking points while completely sweeping aside global warming and other environmental challenges is a terrible strategy.

Sure, global warming is a politically dirty word today too. But that’s because the President and other political leaders failed to talk about it, allowing the deniers an opportunity to hijack the word. If you look at the polls showing an increasing number of Americans concerned about global warming, now is the perfect opportunity to make the issue a centerpiece of our energy strategy.

If Obama fails to make the global warming case for clean energy, technologies like algae will just be another “weird” special interest — not an environmental imperative.

This article was originally published on Climate Progress and has been reposted with permission.

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About the Author

is an editor at Greentech Media. Formerly, he was a reporter/blogger for Climate Progress, where he wrote about clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. Before joining CP, he was an editor/producer with He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University.

  • Joel_drotts

    What electric has over algey, natural or so called clean gas, or other fuels, is Electrical does more that just cars. You can’t think of electric as only fuel for cars, trucks, or vehicles. Solar, wind, nuclear plants even can power buildings, cities, and vehicles. You know I need a job, pay me s100,000 a year fly me out to DC and I’ll play the Presidents bad guy and yell at his urban planning teams. Who are very uncreative. Look most major cities public transportation is already ran on electric. You install smart grids to make it more efficient, place solar panels and wind on every piece of City or County owned property owned, and have that feed the public transportation. Meanwhile, have the city and county Governments buildings also run off the electric power from the arrays or windmills. Then have government fleets use electric cars, plugged into the new smart grid, and renewable solar power systems. The President can make these changes in his reconstruction act.

    He needs to stop listening to Burnakie! The guy is a wall street baffoon, east coast weirdo elitist. Those guys stopped innovating and creating years ago. All they know and get taught in those ivy league schools is how to be snobs, and rip people off on wall street. California just enacted tax credits that help people pay off Solar panel arrays up front.

    Look, Buttfuckie the Wall Street doosh can argue his models and simulations all day. But if Mr. Obama pushes urban planning the way I am describing he is engaging construction 10% GDP fact. Get Auto manufacturing retooled and running on electric. I don’t know what the GDP on American auto manufacturing is is, but add that to construction. Then you and energy production, another large section of GDP. Then add all the manufacturing and distribution which goes along with those three major industries, plus the new sciences which will kick in cause business will want to make things cheaper and more efficient.

    What I am describing is called real macroeconomics, job creation beyond anything we’ve had since the 50′ and 60’s, and anti-Berfaggy and his dooshy investment wall street plans. Real economy. That actually works. How it always worked. Classic American Innovation, jobs, pay, pride, and no outsourcing. Punish through tax outsourcing, and reward and forgive companies who bring money back home and invest in the new economy. I swear, if I didn’t already live in Mrs. Pelsoi’s district and thought I’d stand a chance I’d run for. Congress just to show them how it’s done. Bring some work ethic, reach across aisles, and vote for the best ideas (red or blue).

    I finished my Bar Exam today, I fulfilled my promise to my mother. NOW I GET TO DO WHAT I WANT! I don’t have to be an attorney, not sure I want to be one. I want to get paid, I want to work, I want to get going doing something big. Putting my Gfanddad’s asset’s and Family Limited Partnerships together again. But that won’t be fast enough either. I am starting Monday. Don’t know what I will do, but I will be getting my piece of this new economy. I say new caucuses times seem rough (but better), which means the tough get gloing and get rich! Watch!!!!! I amdead serious.

    Some tell the President to buck up. He can’t force people, but be can sure as heck do things and enact policies that persuade people and business in the right direction for America! He’s got it. We’re OK, and just warning up. I promise!

    • Jonah_Falcon

      “Stop listening to bernanke” lol. Obama is complicit with that baffoon. Probably has the money printing machine on speed dial.

      Who appointed Geithner?

      Obama is dirty and will be the death of the dollar.

      On the flip side, Obama is helping to create jobs. ‘Nuther 230k epa employees coming soon.

      You guys deserve this clown.

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