Harold Ickes was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s one-man brain trust, confidant, and peerless executive. To his political opponents, including the republican clergyman Clare Boothe Luce, he had “the mind of a commissar and the soul of a meat axe”. As head of the Public Works Administration in the 1930s, Ickes quickly turned billions of New Deal dollars into dams, bridges, schools, and much-needed infrastructure. As an ardent conservationist who later served as acting interior secretary, he waged a brutal war against the oil industry. But in May 1941, with war looming, Roosevelt appointed a man he dubbed “Harry the Terrible” as the nation’s first “oil czar.” It would have overseen the opening of 13,400 new wells in the first year in a long time for American oil executives – an increase in production of up to 40 million gallons per day and a 30 percent increase in refining output. Later it was written that the Western allies “swam to victory in the sea of oil”.
This remarkable turn of events resonates as America faces another world-historical challenge—this time against authoritarianism and military adventurism in Europe and potentially Asia. When it comes to competing with Russia and China, energy and other critical supply chains represent a crucial battleground. The collective ability of technologically advanced democracies to resist coercion from Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, Caracas or Beijing depends on access to critical minerals and other industrial materials. Major pieces of legislation—particularly the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—provided massive new funding and incentives (about $400 billion worth) to grow the market, build infrastructure, and develop reliable suppliers for electric vehicles (EVs) and other clean energy. and transportation technologies. To make sure everything happened efficiently and quickly, President Joe Biden turned to his smart and nasty DC insider (and oil industry antagonist) John Podesta.
Like Ickes, Podesta will have to move through bureaucracy and move beyond traditional political allies and ideological comfort zones. Most importantly, and only like the New Seller, Podesta will have to work constructively with industry, including traditional political rivals mining companies, heavy manufacturing and fossil fuel-related energy companies. Ultimately, an effective energy transition will require the establishment of a secure and reliable supply chain between the United States and its close allies and trading partners that is independent of China or Russia. For example, the average EV requires five times the amount (by weight) of critical minerals as a conventional car. While some allies and partners may produce more, the U.S. currently mines a small amount of lithium, cobalt, nickel and other minerals essential to EV batteries. The picture is even bleaker for the processing of the most critical minerals – anywhere from 50 to 90 percent controlled by Chinese companies.
When Ickes was at the Public Works Department in the 1930s and then Podesta in the 1940s when he consolidated oil companies, he had to rely heavily on both industry and government to achieve a significant (but responsible) expansion of domestic mining and processing of critical minerals and materials. It must overcome obstacles to more reliable, cleaner, and cheaper electricity generation, including expanding transmission infrastructure across the country — a priority that has been set in the face of local NIMBY opposition in the past. In addition, the IRS must provide a degree of clarity and flexibility to ensure maximum eligibility for tax credits while still incentivizing problematic outsourcing.
Otherwise, the long overdue energy transition will never gain enough traction and take root outside the current administration. Such a failure would leave the US dependent on the dirtiest fuels and at the mercy of the countries that produce them.
Ultimately, the energy transition will succeed or fail based on its ability to fuel future economic growth and improve living standards for all Americans. Doing so requires an “energy czar” willing to work on both sides of the congressional aisle, win the trust of responsible members of the business community, and maintain support among fair-minded environmental leaders.
Joe Biden doesn’t need to be another FDR to welcome this historic moment. But John Podesta needs to channel his inner Harold Ickes. And so on.