“Infrastructure” can be a very misleading word.
Washington politicians use it as an end in itself, an accomplishment related to creating construction jobs. But a better description of that activity is “public investment.” Public investment implies that what you build actually matters, that wasting money is, well, wasting money and, as in all investments activity, there's a dramatic difference between a smart, productive choice and a foolish, unproductive one.
Which brings up the history of investing in energy.
There has been a long-raging dispute in private investing circles over whether investing in fossil fuel energy is wise from a societal viewpoint or profitable from a private one. The two questions have been considered separately and are susceptible to different answers — but this turns out to be a gigantic mistake.
Over time, if something turns out to be terrible for society, it becomes the target of widespread popular and/or political wrath and is severely curtailed or limited. Think opioids, or ozone-depleting chemicals, or leaded gasoline, or asbestos, or DDT. While there still may be money to be made during a long period of decline from harm-causing commodities, from an investment standpoint, it falls under the heading of “catching a falling knife” — always a dangerous activity.
And that’s what fossil fuel investing has become over the last 10 years. From transportation to energy generation, the fossil fuel industry is largely protected by its deep, complex and pervasive roots reaching throughout our global economy. But that’s precisely what also makes the investment risk all the clearer. All the corporate boardrooms, investment advisers and brokers who have fought not to divest have been working strenuously to protect their God-given right to lose a lot of money. Jim Kramer and Larry Fink agree on that.
The private investing world is in the process of realizing — belatedly — that social and financial investment decisions are the same. In fact, they can’t be separated, and that bodes well for both bullish investment prospects and the stabilizing of our climate.
Investing in clean energy isn't just a social investment in curbing climate change — it also makes basic market sense. Wind energy is already on track to supply 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. by 2030, and the solar industry has experienced a growth rate of more than 48 percent a year since 2010. In addition to avoiding the volatility of high-tension foreign commodities markets and the mounting social cost of carbon-polluting energy sources, an investment in clean energy doubles as an investment in long-term, good-paying American jobs. For example, the solar industry employs a quarter-million people, a number that's doubled since 2012 due to the industry's rapid growth.
Despite Republican-led subsidies and handouts to the fossil fuel industry, by every measure clean energy and climate action are economically competitive. The Republican Party apparently doesn’t believe its own dogma: that the private sector knows best about investment, that the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. The Republican Party wants to bail out the losers — who just happen to be their biggest supporters.
And, no, it's not like the General Motors bailout. Car sales may plummet in hard times, but the need for transportation is definitely not going away, whereas the energy source behind transportation certainly can change. In fact, it must. Whereas the GM bailout was a short-term response to a temporary move in the economy, government investment into oil and gas infrastructure for any reason (let alone during a pandemic) is a short-term response to a long-term, permanent trend. We cannot safely produce all the oil and gas resources in the world — ever.
That’s why lots of the world’s reserves — especially the high-cost ones — are effectively worthless. That’s what the current dislocation is revealing: not a blip, but a global downward trend.
The good news is that investing in new markets, new growth, new jobs — and arresting the climate crisis to protect public health — is, in fact, the same path. If we can get out from underneath a corporate-controlled government led by Trump and his party, we can buck polluters' influence in Washington and take real and direly needed steps toward the cleaner, safer future we all seek.
Tom Steyer, an investor and environmental activist, was a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.