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Romney Cites Energy Report That Advocates Carbon Price

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Mitt Romney at Castor ConceptsMitt Romney wants to fund energy research and development, but not the “green energy” research that Barack Obama has favored. That’s the clear takeaway from his answers to the 14 questions posed to the two candidates by Scientific American and ScienceDebate.org. In his answer to the question on “Research and the Future” Romney writes:

I am a strong supporter of federally funded research… [yet] President Obama spent $90 billion in stimulus dollars in a failed attempt to promote his green energy agenda. That same spending could have funded the nation’s energy research programs at the level recommended in a recent Harvard University study for nearly twenty years.

Yet I was curious about this Harvard study. How would a President Romney focus energy research funding if not on clean energy?

A little Googling later, I discovered “Transforming U.S. Energy Innovation,” a 338-page report published in November 2011 by the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. (Romney’s domestic policy advisor Oren Cass confirms that the candidate was referring to this study.) Its recommendations are at once completely anodyne—they echo, to varying extent, the opinions of the great majority of policy experts who think seriously about technology, energy security, economics and climate change—and totally surprising, in that they resemble very little of what Romney has been saying on the campaign trail.

Perhaps the most glaring difference is that the report calls for the U.S. federal government to put a “substantial price” on carbon emissions, either through a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax. The experts argue that a price on carbon will prod private business into developing new energy technologies. Private-sector innovation is a policy theme that the Romney camp extols, but in another question Romney states that he would “oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away.”

Without a price on carbon, a lot of the rationale disappears for the fossil-fuel research  that Romney favors. “There’s really not much of a point in [the government] doing a whole lot of R&D on coal with carbon capture and storage—which is always going to be more expensive than coal without carbon capture and storage—unless you’re expecting that at some point down the road there’s going to be some sort of motivation for utilities to deploy it,” says Matthew Bunn, one of the report’s co-authors. After all, if it doesn’t cost anything to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, why would any utility bother to bury it?

Romney also criticizes Obama for describing his own energy policy as a “hodgepodge,” and for “misguided attempts to play the role of venture capitalist, pick winners and losers, and spend tens of billions of dollars on politically-prioritized investments have been a disaster for the American taxpayer.” The snipe can most likely be read as a reference to solar-panel maker Solyndra, which received over $500 million in federal loan guarantees before going bankrupt.

Yet when the report’s authors polled a number of experts to see how the federal government could most wisely direct its research largesse, they concluded that the government needs to spread research funding around, supporting not only different research areas such as biofuels, solar power, energy storage, nuclear and yes, fossil fuels—but different stages of the research process. “We make the point that in order to get those technologies actually across the finish line to the point where they can be competitive and widely deployed, it’s not just a matter of research and development,” says Bunn. “You also need support for commercial demonstration for some kinds of technologies—stuff that the private sector won’t be convinced will be a reasonable risk until they can do it at scale.” He specifically cites carbon-capture research for coal-fired power plants, which no power company is going to pursue until the government shows it can be done at large scales in the real world. Romney’s energy plan would pare back on these commercialization stages and concentrate federal funding on pure research.

The Harvard report also recommends that the federal government double* its energy research budget to an even $10 billion a year. A significant chunk of this money would go into fossil fuels ($2.4 billion) and nuclear power ($1.8 billion), with most of the rest coming from research into bioenergy ($682 million), energy storage systems ($244 million), solar photovoltaics ($409 million), alternative vehicle technology ($2.1 billion) and building efficiency systems ($678 million). A $90 billion sum would fund such a research program for nine years, not the “nearly twenty” years cited by Romney.

Bunn is grateful for Romney’s stated support of energy research, but he recognizes that politicians and energy experts can appear to be talking in two different worlds. “Over the years there has been bipartisan support for substantial federal investments in energy, and years ago there was bipartisan support—including from Senator John McCain—for a cap-and-trade system in the U.S. that would result in a substantial carbon price,” says Bunn. “At one time when Governor Romney was governor he was supportive of Massachusetts participating in a carbon trading arrangement in the Northeast. I would like to see these issues again becoming something that can gain bipartisan support.” One suspects that this Harvard pronouncement will not make it out to the campaign trail.

Thanks to Shawn Otto at ScienceDebate.org for assistance confirming the study with the Romney team.

* Update 9/18/12 2:18 p.m.: $10 billion would double, not quintuple, current budgets, which now total just above $5 billion a year.

Image by davelawrence8 on Flickr

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ScienceNut 1:42 pm 09/18/2012

    The person that wrote Romney’s answers probably also used Google to find the Harvard report and didn’t bother to read it properly.

    Link to this
  2. 2. bolafson 2:18 pm 09/18/2012

    You sound like you expected Romney or someone on his campaign to have actually read and comprehended the report.

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  3. 3. sethdayal 2:35 pm 09/18/2012

    What happened? How did this slip through at SCIAM? The Harvard report recommends spending 5 times as much on nuke research as on solar almost as much as fossils.

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  4. 4. ScienceNut 3:26 pm 09/18/2012

    The “experts” in the Nuclear area that they polled recommended an increase of 5 times. Perhaps they’re used to getting more. The report itself recommended 3 times as much. Still the inverse of what the priority should be.

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  5. 5. Caellwyn 5:05 pm 09/18/2012

    I am reading some opposition to nuclear research here. Isn’t nuclear power relatively safe and low impact if looked at on a total power produced vs. costs, monetary, environmental, and human? We are all traumatized by Fukashima, but let’s learn our lessons and move on. Maybe don’t build plants near the coast in tsunami-land? It’s a mature technology that is already economically viable. It seems to me that the biggest block to expanding nuclear power programs is public perception, and this can be changed.

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  6. 6. sethdayal 5:22 pm 09/18/2012

    Actually a 70′s designed reactor just down the beach from FUKU survived the event just tickeyboo thankyou. The Fuku problem was corrupt regulation something that doesn’t exist in most Western nuke regulation.

    Nukes are the safest, cleanest, and cheapest energy source available to us bar none. Its bad reputation comes from Big Oil’s purchase of our politicians and Big Media like Sciam here, who put out an anti nuclear slant all the time.

    There are in fact no cogent arguments against nuke power. In a recent day long forum in Australia examining energy alternatives with thousands of attendees, nuke support went from 33% before to 55% after the forum, while support for not so renewables remained at the 33% level set by zealots.

    With most the issues with next gen nukes solved, new Gen IV reactors due for service in India and Russia this year and next, the payback on Gen IV nuke research is immediate not way out there wacky nonsense that we see from fossil carbon capture money. Unfortunately Big Oil which doesn’t like nuke power, owns Obama.

    The thorium fueled Molten salt reactor (MSR) variation called the LFTR can run economically on Thorium fuel and while the process is far better understood than high efficiency solar cells that get $10′s of billions in government support, Big Oil’s 100% owed politicians particularly in the Obama administration, work hard to make sure not a dime is spent on MSR research.

    Confusing the issue is the uranium fueled Molten salt reactor variation called the DMSR invented by Canadian physicist David LeBlanc which has all the advantages of the Molten Salt reactor but runs on uranium or nuke waste. Since all the worlds nuke waste burned in these reactors would power the world for 1000 years, there really is no need for the Thorium variation. Costs are forecasted at less than a penny a kwh. LeBlanc is trying to build one from private financing as usual with no help from his Big Oil owned and operated Fascist government that spends $10′s of Billions on worthless wacky carbon capture and ethanol fuel scams.

    Google “David LeBlanc – Molten Salt Reactor Designs, Options & Outlook”

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  7. 7. doctordawg 8:08 pm 09/18/2012

    Don’t care about nukes. They’re fake. Just another centralized way for Wall Street to profit at the expense of taxpayers and monopolized utility companies. I have a 3.4kwh solar array on about one quarter of my home’s roof, and it generates more power than I use, air conditioning and all. There is no reason all homes could not be doing this, except for billionaire corporations and investor dividends clouding the waters. You can excuse me away all you want, but I’m not talking theory…I generate more than I use. Deny away.

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  8. 8. Ungolythe 9:39 pm 09/18/2012

    I left out a link in the above comments. It should have been after “I suppose that these people are in the “pocket” of the Oil companies because they don’t advocate a Nuclear Only energy policy – http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear-power-in-a-warming-world.pdf

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  9. 9. Shoshin 11:31 am 09/19/2012

    The vast majority of people cannot afford to shell out $50,000 to save $1500 a year in electricity. You can? Good for you!

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  10. 10. Shoshin 11:35 am 09/19/2012

    What is the actual residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere anyway? Pre-IPCC research pegs it at 7-8 years, with a range of 4-15 years, while IPCC approved #’s place it at 100 years.

    Why the big jump in the IPCC #? The IPCC did not do any research, so whose #’s is that claim based on?

    Seems a bit convenient, doesn’t it?

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  11. 11. dwbd 12:27 pm 09/19/2012

    “..a 3.4kwh solar array on about one quarter of my home’s roof, and it generates more power than I use..”

    Avg household electricity consumption in the USA is 1.3 kw. A 3.4 kwh rooftop solar array would give you a year round avg of 5-600 watts in a sunny southern location like Los Angelos. So avg home would need >2.5X your array and that would easily cost avg over $50,000. Not many can afford that. And that is only if you have no shade trees or buildings, perfectly aligned roof, and cleaned regularly.

    And I know you aren’t aware of how the power grid operates, but dude, it ain’t a giant battery, you haven’t replaced even one watt of power generation capacity by the utility. They still have to pay capital cost & variable O&M cost on 100% of your 3.4 kw. No savings there. And they still have to start up the generator in the morning before your solar starts putting out, shut it down, and then start it up again as your solar ramps down just as peak demand occurs into the evening. No help there.

    So you’re using the grid as a giant free battery, and all the grid infrastructure which you ain’t paying for. Thief.

    And the 1.3 kw avg household electricity consumption is only 1/3rd of avg per capita electricity consumption. Try paying for that for a family of four 1.3 X 3 X 4 = 16 kw or 30X what your pathetic little Solar panel puts out on avg. And that is only one third your avg per capita total Energy consumption. so multiply that by 3 and you would need 90X your mickey mouse Solar panels to supply your family of four share of USA energy consumption. Pay for that. And pay for storage on top of that – triple that cost. You’re dreaming dude, most people can’t even afford a mortgage never mind hundreds of $thousands in Solar PV.

    And yeah, the UCS – the union of concerned non-scientists, rabidly anti-nuclear, is paid by Big Oil, just look at their financial statement, where do you think those annual $millions in foundation & anonymous >$100k each donations come from. The Sierra Club was caught recieving $26M with $30M more promised from the Shale Gas company, Chesapeake energy to fund their anti-nuclear and anti-coal campaigns.

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  12. 12. gmperkins 1:40 pm 09/19/2012

    The Harvard report was quite solid but it appears Romney didn’t actually read it. As for Nuclear power, it has its place. Lets not go overboard one way or the other. I wouldn’t put them all across America but there exist ideal sites and it is better than coal and oil. As for solar arrays and household consumption, the average household use is a bad metric to use because the average household uses far more energy than it should. Many simple changes that don’t cost much can cut a homes energy consumption in half. The goal is cleaner energy as well as reduced energy overhead.

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  13. 13. kphuser1 3:57 pm 09/19/2012

    It doesn’t take much radiation…you are now ill. Worse, there’s no causality; to others you are to blame, or just poor fortune. Coal is at least an equal evil. Mercury is killing us; it damages nerves which control organ function, leading to a number of diseases: again, ill health without a clear link to the culprit. Follow the money. Conservation is unpopular; no one profits. It is also distasteful as it is contrary to American individualism. This is mine; I own it; I can consume all I wish; I earned my place in the world through my own industry or cunning; I am better than you because I have more things; I deserve the last drop, the last gasp while you suffer.

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  14. 14. Drake 4:04 pm 09/19/2012

    Romney’s positions and the Harvard study are not mutually exclusive. Romney says he supports the R&D advocated in the report. That does not mean he supports everything in it, which is probably a good thing. While it advocates carbon pricing, it also calls for sector specific actions to address “market failures.” The purpose of carbon pricing, however, is to eliminate market failures! It may be that, in a Romney administration, they may reconsider carbon pricing as a reasonable alternative to the nation’s current approach to greenhouse gas control — using the half-century old inappropriate Clean Air Act instead of an efficient market-based approach.

    Link to this

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