Energy transition: distorted by politics?

Political divisions may explain some recent mysteries around the energy transition, and be larger than we had previously imagined. This note explores lobbying data and concludes there is more need for objective and apolitical analysis.


To an apolitical researcher, focused mostly on data, numbers and objective analysis, there are some strange goings-on in the energy transition. Our review of the ‘top ten controversies’ is linked below. But let us zoom in on a few examples…

(1) A Republican President recently stated that climate change was a ‘hoax’ and could effectively be ignored. This is despite not having any clear expertise in Earth Science or climatology himself. Conversely, our own climate models and conclusions are below.

(2) A Democrat President recently has been seen to discourage US oil and gas production in the name of averting climate change, but then later called on OPEC to raise output. This is despite many OPEC countries – Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela – having much higher levels of flaring, methane leaks and CO2 emissions than US producers (data below).

(3) Another of the leading US Academic institutions recently announced it would divest its endowment from oil and gas. This is despite suggestions that divestment might, again, hand market share to higher CO2 producers, while also depriving China of new LNG supplies, thereby perpetuating its reliance on 2-3x more CO2 intensive coal.

(4) 100% renewable electricity is often promoted by policymakers and even claimed by some tech companies (note here). This is despite nobody having a practical or economical solution to satisfy demand in the 30-70% of the times when wind and solar hardly generate any electricity at all, or other complications with the power grid (below).

(5) Restoring degraded natural ecosystems can absorb around 200-400 tons of incremental CO2 per acre at costs of around $15-50/ton. This should be an enormous win for the environmental movement, especially with more experience (notes below). Yet many policymakers have so far disavowed nature-based solutions in favor of other CO2 abatement options costing $300-1,000/ton and that do not restore nature.

The mysteries above are unsettling to me as a researcher. I have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering ‘what am I missing?’ and poring back over my numbers.

But these apparent paradoxes may also be explained by political divisions. Our chart below aggregates data from opensecrets.org, showing several billions of dollars spent on lobbying by fifteen major industries in the past 20-years. Conspiracy theories are not usually helpful. But there are clear conflicts of interests in these numbers.

Political polarization? Some members of the oil and gas industry appear to be consistently among the largest contributors to Republican candidates and causes, followed by some members of other energy-intensive industries. Conversely, some members of the education, entertainment and tech industries are consistently the largest contributors to Democrat candidates and causes. And to state the obvious, Democrats tend to be pro-Democrat causes and anti-Republican causes; and vice versa.

Everyone is entitled to a political opinion. However, is there not the smallest temptation for those with strong political leanings to promote the interests of others with similar political learnings; and equally, to weaken the interests of those with opposite political leanings? How do we know that politics are not ‘distorting’ energy transition policies? Five conclusions follow below…

(1) Some statements are merely political posturing? If you cannot find a good facts-based, numbers-based justification for strange goings-on in the energy transition, it is possible that they could be politically driven. In some cases, you may simply translate “I support this technology” or “I strongly object to this technology” as “I am hereby expressing my political position”. That is fine. People are entitled to political positions. But it may be helpful for decision-makers to differentiate between objective facts and political opinions. We think transparent data and numbers are the best way to do this.

(2) Politicizing the energy transition may make it harder to achieve important environmental goals. By definition, the solution space that satisfies a complex array of lobbying interests is going to be smaller than the overall solution space. It may involve selecting non-optimal solutions. There is also a risk of yo-yo policies, as each fresh administration reverses course from the last. Therefore an important goal for decision-makers, is to identify opportunities that will ‘stick’, regardless of the political climate, and differentiate them from temporary fads that are politically motivated. Our work aims to do this.

(3) If you want to make a difference, driving the energy transition, the best solution may be to steer clear of politics, and simply get on with ‘doing’ something constructive. You are not going to change other peoples’ political views. Get on with your life. As a personal example, I am currently speccing out my own reforestation project, which should offset my family’s entire lifetime CO2 emissions (note below). Per our research, there are some amazing companies ‘doing’ amazing things across the energy transition, and some amazing opportunities as a consequence…

(4) Is all research objective? What is most surprising about our lobbying chart above is the very large political skew of US Academia, especially in the last electoral cycle. How does an institution that gives $2.5 – 25M to a particular political party (data here) ensure that it is conducting apolitical research, balanced peer-reviews and considering all angles? Everyone is entitled to political opinions. But we aspire that science should be apolitical and objective. Moreover, some of the output from widely-reputed, inter-governmental organizations has also recently contained some surprising conclusions, which smell of the political cart leading the numerical horse.

(5) The best antidote, we believe, is objective, numbers-based analysis. Which is the goal in TSE’s research. It is independent and apolitical. The sole focus is to find practical and economic opportunities for decision-makers, which can help the world decarbonize. To keep a balance, each of our 170 clients pays the same subscription fee to access our research. Our conflicts of interests policy is linked here. And most importantly, all of our data and models are published transparently on our website. If you ever disagree with the number in a particular cell in a particular spreadsheet, then please write in, and we should debate it.