Talk About Low Energy!

The U.S. Department of Education employs 4,400 people and has a current budget of $70 billion. How many children does the department actually educate? I am sure the round number approaches zero. I’ve had a few opportunities to ask liberal audiences aghast at Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos and alarmed at proposed budget cuts for the department to name one single thing a past secretary of education or the department has done that has had a meaningful effect on public education, and I can hear the crickets chirping while I await a response. I sometimes offer, “What about No Child Left Behind”? Most people on the left hate it (because it involved standards and testing), even though they can’t say very much about why (because it is an embarrassment to oppose standards and testing openly). Sometimes to twist the knife, I ask people to name three previous education secretaries. Hardly anyone can do it. Yet the Department of Education is a political sacred cow. It apparently runs on the principle of No Bureaucrat Left Behind (or Unemployed). Should be called the Department of No Education.

Likewise we could do with some close scrutiny of the Department of Energy. Now 40 years old, just how much energy as the Department of Energy produced? It’s input-to-output ratio may be worse than the Department of Education. The great Mark Mills sums up the numbers for us in a terrific article this week in The Hill:

After all these decades of government programs consuming some $500 billion in that pursuit, what’s happened?

America uses 140 percent more oil for transportation today than it did in 1977. Electricity consumption is up 200 percent. (The recent slow growth in power demand looks a lot like a recession effect: we’ll soon know for sure when the economy fully recovers.) Lavishly subsidized biofuels have grown from an irrelevant 0.25 percent in 1977 to an unremarkable 5 percent share of transportation energy use today. Solar power rose from essentially zero, back then, to today’s irrelevant 0.15 percent share of U.S. energy. Wind power has been the biggest success: but even those heavily subsidized turbines now supply only 1.5 percent of America’s energy.

The fundamental energy sources available to power society have remained unchanged not just since 1977 but since 1957. Politicians and pundits often intone that there are “a multitude” of new energy options, but that’s rhetorical hyperbole. There is no new physics in energy nor new energy sources, just better ways to use those that exist.

The most remarkable and unpredicted energy tech change didn’t come from DOE or the super-major oil companies. Thousands of small and midsized companies perfected new shale oil and gas technologies and transformed the landscape. Shale tech has added 2,000 percent more to U.S. energy supply in the past decade than solar and wind combined. That’s the fastest and biggest addition to world energy supply — not just hydrocarbons, but all forms of energy — that has occurred in history.

True, this DoE does have responsibility for looking after nuclear materials, but there’s no reason that function couldn’t be transferred to some other cabinet department.


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