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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Political Earthquake: Pelosi's Democratic House Passes Pro-Drilling Bill

The energy battle unfolding in the halls of Congress carries one clear lesson: energy prices and economic insecurity present a profoundly more powerful political imperative than calls for environmental protection and climate action. Rising gas prices and plummeting stock prices have dramatically altered the political landscape around energy, creating a pivotal moment for clean energy and climate advocates.

Republicans successfully capitalized on the changing energy landscape to advance an expanded oil drilling agenda, pushing Democrats back with cries of "Drill Baby, Drill!" and seizing control of the energy debate for the first time since the 2006 election.

Democrats won a tactical victory yesterday, passing a true "all of the above" energy bill out of the House that authorizes expanded oil drilling and creates new renewable energy production requirements for electric utilities. Pelosi and the House Democrats forced all but 15 Republicans to vote No on a pro-drilling bill, calling their empty "we support an all of the above energy strategy" bluff.

But make no mistake: while this was a tactical win, when Nancy Pelosi's Democratic House passes a pro-drilling bill, you're looking at nothing less than a political earthquake. We're witnessing a fundamental realignment of the energy debate.

Energy policy is now about bread and butter issues: jobs, economic growth and energy prices. While climate change and clean energy were once the center of the Congressional energy agenda, they are quickly becoming sidebar issues, supplanted by concerns that are far more pressing to everyday Americans.

Does this mean hope is lost for clean energy and climate advocates? Certainly not. But it means we'll have to adapt, and quickly, if we want to proactively advance a clean energy agenda.

Democrats may have won a tactical victory today, but they are still on the defensive in an ongoing battle set on Republican's terms. If we want to see Democrats on the offensive, advancing a proactive energy agenda, clean energy and climate advocates need to develop new policies and a new political narrative about our issues that provides Democrats with an answer to their most pressing political problems (hint: it's not going to be saving Polar Bears anytime soon).

What Democrats need most is a set of credible new solutions to rising energy prices and a stagnating economy. Right now, Republicans are providing the only solutions with any traction: expand production of dirty old energy sources, cut taxes, and send out stimulus checks. Sure, any decent analysis would reveal the GOP "plan" for what it is: a recipe for economic and environmental disaster. But Republicans and their allies have spent years positioning their policy recommendations as "common-sense" solutions to economic issues, and Americans are buying it. Meanwhile, many of the Democrat's strongest progressive allies have spent most of their time developing solutions to climate change and ecological challenges. Clean, green, carbon-neutral, emissions reductions, ecological crisis, climate change -- this is the language that climate and clean energy advocates have been predominantly using, leaving Democrats grasping for credible answers when their constituents - prodded by the GOP and their allies - start shouting about jobs, recession, unemployment and gas prices.

It's not too late for clean energy advocates to develop the economic answers Democrats are looking for -- but only if stop thinking as much about shrinking ice caps and increasing carbon emissions and start thinking more about vanishing retirement funds and increasing unemployment. In short, to win the energy battle, we need to make our clean energy agenda a solution to today's pressing economic challenges, not tomorrow's environmental challenges.

Luckily, we have some strong cards to play. A series of strategic public investments in a new energy economy can make clean energy cheap and abundant; create millions of new jobs; spur innovation and economic competitiveness; reinvest in our communities; modernize our ailing infrastructure; and spark the creation of entire new industries. We've got a powerful story to tell, and it's all good news for American families hit by an ailing economy and increasingly expensive fossil fuel prices.

But we've got a lot of work to do. "Drill Here, Drill Now!" has a powerful intuitive appeal to most Americans. To knock that lose and replace it with something like "Make Clean Energy Cheap and Abundant!", or "Ignite a New Energy Economy," we need to get focused, start talking predominately in economic (not ecological) language, and develop a set of policy recommendations that match our narrative. Are we up for the challenge?

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