I recently attended an event where a former Obama administration official was talking about energy. This official spoke about many things, including how the administration had pursued an “All of the Above” strategy on energy policy. As sometimes happens at such events, my attention wandered, and I found myself looking at my phone, reading a story about a Trump administration official talking about their own All of the Above approach to energy policy.

When the same slogan can be used to describe the approach of both the Obama and Trump administrations on an issue, you can be sure of two things. First, the slogan tests well. Second, it’s probably pretty vague.

As applied to energy, an “All of the Above” strategy isn’t entirely meaningless. There are plenty of people, for example, who simply do not want to use certain types of energy sources at all. Some environmentalists favor a “keep it in the ground” approach to fossil fuels, while others oppose nuclear power despite it being a low carbon energy source. And I’ve talked to a few people who want to stop wind power due to aesthetic or other concerns.

On the flip side, “All of the Above” could imply that since you want to use some of each type of energy, government should step in and promote or protect energy sources that aren’t doing well in the market. All sorts of policies, from subsidies and mandates, to restrictions or bailouts are at least theoretically consistent with the All of the Above label.

Aside from being vague, the main problem with All of the Above is that it is an answer to the wrong question. The question should not be whether we are for or against a particular energy source in some abstract sense. Rather, the question should be how we should decide how much of a given energy source to use, and under what circumstances.

If someone has an idea to turn bat guano into electricity, I say more power to him (no pun intended). But if it turns out to cost $10,000 a kWh, then I won’t feel bad if people decide to get their electricity from other sources. The same is true for incumbent energy sources. The United States used to get more of its electricity from coal. It also used to use horses instead of cars to get around. People switched because what had been the cheapest source of transportation was no longer so attractive. And that was fine. Today, many coal plants are struggling to compete with lower cost natural gas. And that’s fine too.

At R Street, we strive to be technology neutral. We want to make sure that energy regulation lets people pick the energy sources that work best for themselves and for society as a whole. If you can get the rules of the road right, then you can let people decide for themselves on their destination. It may not be as catchy a slogan as All of the Above, but we can live with that.

Image credit: PopTika

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