The problem with the energy debate, in a nutshell

THE PROBLEM WITH THE ENERGY DEBATE, IN A NUTSHELL…. Ohio’s Rob Portman (R) is one of the year’s more confounding Senate candidates. In addition to having served as a congressman, Portman is perhaps best known for having served as the Bush/Cheney budget director (at a time when the budget became an embarrassing mess) and the Bush/Cheney trade representative (at a time when the government’s trade policies were not exactly popular in Ohio).

To overcome baggage like this, Portman is hoping voters ignore his background and focus more on hot-button issues. In a new ad, the Republican attacks cap-and-trade as “a job killer for Ohio,” which he says will tax Americans for turning on a light bulb. As campaign nonsense goes, it’s pretty boilerplate.

But there are a couple of relevant angles to consider. The first is that Portman, like many Republicans, used to support cap-and-trade, writing in 1996: “Private sector incentives, such as permitting companies to trade discharge outputs, can both reduce pollution and costs. If we can harness the power of market incentives, we’ll do more with less.” As his party moved to the right, his priorities apparently shifted.

What’s more, Stephen Stromberg notes that Portman’s alternative approach to energy policy, instead of regulating carbon emissions, relies on government subsidies for corn ethanol, nuclear power, natural gas, and coal.

On his Web site, Portman criticizes “command-and-control” regulation from Washington. He mentions refraining from choosing winners and losers in the energy debate. He says he doesn’t want Washington “to stifle the ingenuity of American enterprise and our market system through government interference.” But inefficient government interference is his plan.

Oh, and Portman’s scheme would also no doubt be expensive to the federal government. Carbon pricing, on the other hand, would more than pay for itself. It’s somewhat ironic that a former head of the Office of Management and Budget would favor increasing spending to enact a policy that is almost certainly less efficient than the one that’s paid-for.

If Portman’s misleading ad was some random, isolated campaign attack, it’d be easier to overlook. But the Ohioan’s spot is effectively the Republican approach to energy in a nutshell.

There’s room for a serious debate on one of the most serious of issues. One side of the aisle simply isn’t ready for it.