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Joel Kotkin: Obama’s Energy Dilemma: Back Energy-Fueled Growth Or Please Green Lobby

Joel Kotkin

Talk all you want about the fiscal cliff, but more important still will be how the Obama administration deals with a potential growth-inducing energy boom. With America about to join the ranks of major natural gas exporters and with the nation’s rising oil production reducing imports, the energy boom seems poised to both boost our global competitiveness and drive economic growth well above today’s paltry levels.

This puts President Obama in a dilemma. To please his core green constituency, he can strangle the incipient energy-led boom in its cradle through dictates of federal regulators. On the other hand, he can choose to take credit for an economic expansion that could not only improve the lives of millions of middle- and working-class Americans, but also could assure Democratic political dominance for a decade or more.

Stronger economic growth remains the only way to solve our nation’s fundamental fiscal problems other than either huge tax hikes or crippling austerity. As economistBret Swanson has pointed out, the best way to raise revenues and reduce expenditures, particularly for such things as welfare and unemployment, would be to increase overall growth from the current pathetic 2 percent rate to something closer to 3 or 4 percent.

Swanson suggests in a few simple charts (PDF) that a 4 percent growth rate would drive output to levels that would cover even our current projected spending levels. Even at 3 percent, the additional revenue would be enough, for example, to fill in Medicare’s looming $24.6 billion liability that is projected to 2050. The effects of higher growth are likely far greater than either any anticipated bonanza by raising taxes on the “rich” or enacting the most extreme austerity.

The energy revolution presents Obama with the clearest path to drive this critical boost to greater economic growth. New technologies for finding and tapping resources, such as fracking and other new technologies to tap older oil fields, could make America potentially the largest oil and gas producer by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.

Equally important, an increasingly energy self-sufficient America would enjoy significantly greater independence from pressure from the often hoary influence of such unattractive regimes as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Russia. Approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas would cement what would effectively be a North American energy community utterly independent of these trouble spots.

Those that have embraced the energy revolution have already created a gusher in energy jobs, which pay wages on average higher (roughly $100,000 annually ) than those paid by information, professional services, or manufacturing . The six fastest-growing jobs for 2010-11, according to Economic Modeling Specialists International, are related to oil and gas extraction. In total, nine of the top 11 fast-growing jobs in the nation over the past two years are tied in one way or another to oil and gas extraction.

Over the decade, the energy sector has created nearly 200,000 jobs in Texas, as well as 40,000 in Oklahoma, and more than 20,000 in Colorado. Growth on a percentage basis is even higher in North Dakota, which saw a 400 percent increase in these jobs, as well as Pennsylvania, where jobs increased by 20,000.

In contrast California, whose Monterey Formation alone is estimated to be four times larger than North Dakota’s Bakken reserve, has chosen, in its irrepressible quest for ever greater greenness, to sharply limit its fossil-fuel industry As a result, it has generated barely one-tenth the new fossil fuel jobs generated in archrival Texas. Not surprisingly, California and other green-oriented states have lagged behind in GDP and income growth while the energy states have for the most part enjoyed the strongest gains.

In addition, domestic energy growth directly spurs the construction of new, as well as the rehabilitation of old, industrial facilities. This already is occurring across a vast swath of America, from revived steel mills in Ohio and Pennsylvania to massive new petrochemical plants being planned along the Gulf Coast. Further development of energy resources, according to a study by Price Waterhouse Coopers, could create upwards of a million industrial jobs over the next few years.

For Obama, getting behind energy boom presents both enormous opportunities as well a serious political dilemma. In terms of cutting emissions, the rising use of natural gas has been a huge boon, allowing the U.S. to make greater cuts than any other major country over the past four years. Yet, the green lobby, once sympathetic to this relatively clean fuel, has turned decisively against any new gas development.

As a major component of Obama’s wide-ranging coalition of grievance holders,environmentalists expect to exercise greater influence in the second Obama term. Hollywood, now virtually an adjunct to the “progressive” coalition, will soon weigh in with Promised Land, a predictably anti-fracking movie, starring Matt Damon. Living up to Hollywood’s tradition of serving as what Lenin called “useful idiots”, the movie is financed in large part by investors from the United Arab Emirates, whose profits would be threatened by the growth of American energy production.

The ideological stakes for the green movement are tremendous . Greatly expanded American fossil-fuel production violates the “peak oil” mantra that has underpinned environmental thinking for decades, and undermines some of the core rationale for subsidizing expensive renewables such as solar and wind.

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