Scientific American senior editor Mark Fischetti and associate editor Andrea Thompson talk about this election and the future of U.S. energy research and policy.
Steve Mirsky: For this energy installment of our pre-election podcast series I spoke once again to Scientific American editors Mark Fischetti and Andrea Thompson.
SM: What's at stake in this election in terms of energy in this country?
Mark Fischetti: So I think there's two things, Steve. One is oil. On October 27, the U.S. Department of Interior approved a huge oil development project in western Alaska by ConocoPhillips. So that's clearly where the current administration is happy to go. The other issue is electricity. Will it continue to be built on fossil fuels or more so on renewable energy? And I think there's a lot of interesting state races that have some bearing in that too.
SM: That's a good point, because we're not just talking about the presidential election. We're talking about the election in general.
Andrea Thompson: It's an interesting area, because the President and Congress can shape things to a large degree. But then there are also market forces that come into play that can counteract things he's trying to do. So despite during the first four years of the Trump administration, this push towards fossil fuels and to boost them, we still see renewables really surge in their use, and they’ve become comparatively cheaper, especially compared to coal. And that's really happened in spite of any efforts the Trump administration has made, because of technological developments, because companies are moving in that direction regardless of what the administration wants to do. So that will kind of complicate or mitigate what could happen in the next four years.
SM: What can the government do to nudge that market selection pressure one way or the other.
AT: So besides allowing for fossil fuel development on public lands, which the federal government controls, and there's hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in the U.S, they also can affect it through things like tariffs and subsidies. So one thing President Trump has indicated he wants to do is to increase tariffs on solar panels. And so that could actually impact the solar power market. And that's partly been for trade reasons, not necessarily energy-specific reasons, that he's done that. But that, you know, that adds to the cost and makes it a little bit harder for them to compete.
MF: By the way, I would add that, you know, there are still subsidies to this day for oil and natural gas. They're hardly new technologies. It really does change the equation because there are plenty of studies that show purely on cost and energy delivery that renewables—wind and solar—are actually cheaper than many fossil fuels, but they don't stay cheaper if fossil fuels have subsidies.
SM: So what's the story on fracking right now?
AT: Generally, following the Trump administration general pro-fossil-fuel stance they are for allowing fracking on on federal lands and new leases Whereas the Biden position has been that they would discontinue new leases, although leases that are already established would be allowed. And then those don't impact any fracking on private land. So it’s a little bit of a mixed bag.
(The above text is a transcript of this podcast)