Cardin’s Energy Misfire

Thomas A. Firey Jun 17, 2011


Maryland’s junior U.S. senator, Ben Cardin, has become a regular contributor of letters to the editor of the (Hagerstown) Herald-Mail newspaper. Cardin deserves praise for this; it would be easy for the Democrat to ignore heavily Republican Western Maryland. Instead, he shows respect for his constituents by sharing with them his thoughts on policy.

He’d deserve greater praise if his letters didn’t contain the flawed thinking shown in his most recent submission, on U.S. energy policy.

By “flawed,” I don’t mean that Cardin follows a different political philosophy than I do. Rather, his letter shows ignorance of the basics of energy policy and economics.

Some lowlights from Cardin’s letter:

·         He opens by worrying about the high cost of oil, but then calls for the “deployment of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.” He seems not to realize that solar and wind-powered generation are not substitutes for oil. Oil fuels transportation; solar and wind are (very minor) fuels for the stationary power grid.

·         He also calls for greater development of biofuels. He seems unaware that ethanol is more expensive, has more volatile supply, and is arguably environmentally dirtier than oil.

·         He claims that importing oil makes the United States susceptible to price escalation. In fact, imports reduce that susceptibility.

·         He worries about the security of U.S. sources of imported oil. Yet the top two sources of U.S.-imported oil are Canada and Mexico.

·         He worries that petrol dollars flowing to Iran, Venezuela, and the Middle East will fund terrorism and other anti-U.S. policies. Yet petrol dollars will flow to those countries regardless of what energy policy the United States follows.

·         He compares the United States’ percentage of oil reserves to its percentage of world oil production and consumption, in order to suggest U.S. consumption is unsustainable. Comparing percentages in this context is uninformative.

·         Perhaps most baffling, he argues for ending the "tax subsidies" extended to oil wells that would otherwise be unprofitable. (I agree with that, for the simple reason that it’s of dubious public benefit to force onto the market oil that’s otherwise not worth producing.) But then he calls for increased subsidies for "alternative and renewable" energy companies like GE.

In fairness to the senator, I’m sure he understands energy much better than the letter indicates. I suspect a staffer without energy expertise wrote the letter, and Cardin never saw it. (True confession: I once held that role for Don Schaefer when he was governor.)

But if Cardin wants to share his thoughts on policy with voters, he needs to make sure his staff doesn’t author a comedy of errors.