The Magazine

Powering Down

Federal regulation is killing energy development.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, is among the worriers. Speaking recently on America’s declining ability to innovate, Thiel argued that a primary obstacle to innovation has been environmentalism, which “has played a much bigger role than people like”:

You are allowed to manipulate things in the world of bits but not in the world of stuff, because the world of stuff has environmental impacts. And so we’ve had tremendous progress in computers, as well as financial innovation, in the last forty years, but these were really the only things that one was permitted to do.

Similarly, author Neal Stephenson laments that “we have lost our ability to get important things done.” Writing at Wired.com, he argues that the public’s extreme aversion to risk-taking, coupled with bureaucratic inertia and over-lawyering, is “the true innovation-killer of our age.” Looking at the state of energy regulation, it is hard not to agree.  

The difference between yesteryear and today is startling. The Hoover Dam was built in just over five years, beginning with the government opening the bidding process in 1931, and ending with Interior Secretary Harold Ickes approving the finished dam in 1936. Cape Wind, by contrast, will celebrate its tenth year of federal review on November 22 with not a single completed wind turbine to show for its efforts, but a pile of regulatory paperwork almost as high as the Hoover Dam.

Adam J. White is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

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