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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Does November GOP Win Spell the End for Clean Energy Progress? Maybe Not

By Jesse Jenkins, originally at the Breakthrough Institute

According to most electoral prognosticators, Republicans are poised to win major victories in the upcoming November midterm elections, with control of both the House and Senate within their reach. That should spell the end for climate and clean energy legislation, according to many observers, at least for the next Congressional cycle.

But what if it doesn't? Over at SolveClimate, Elizabeth McGowan takes a fresh look at what a GOP win in November could mean for clean energy progress, noting that split control in Washington could actually improve chances for bipartisan energy legislation.

New dynamics in a Washington under divided rule

With one party in control of the White House and both legislative branches, it's far too easy for priority issues to become politically polarized -- so the argument goes. The majority party lacks significant incentive to reach out to the minority party from the beginning to craft solidly bipartisan bills. Meanwhile the minority party can simply become 'the Party of No,' attempting to block any of the majority party's legislative priorities while riding electoral angst at a "broken Washington" back into power in the next Congressional cycle.

With the White House in the hands of one party and the House, Senate, or both under the other party's control, the dynamic can be quite different, according to Capitol Hill observers.

McGowan quotes Paul Bledsoe, a strategist at the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Commission of Energy Policy with a long resume of inside-the-beltway experience:

When one party has a supermajority, Bledsoe pointed out, those in charge tend to write legislation without consulting the minority. That can make it virtually impossible to "sell" complex and significant mechanisms such as cap and trade--which now appears to be dead on arrival.

Even Republicans who once supported cap and trade approach as valid now dismiss it as an unacceptable tax.

"Traditionally, energy is not a partisan but a geographically focused issue," Bledsoe said, adding that the 2005 and 2007 energy bills passed with bipartisan support, the former in a Republican Senate and the latter in a Democratic Senate. ...

"A strange dynamic can develop when the balance of power is narrower," he said, adding that polarization along party lines can dissipate. "I think senators will feel a greater sense of urgency to initiate legislation together. I see senators of goodwill coming together to create bipartisan approaches."
Moving beyond cap and trade could yield bipartisan clean energy progress

According to Josh Freed, director of the clean energy program at the moderate Democratic DC think tank Third Way, a bipartisan clean energy strategy -- one that moves beyond the failed cap and trade debate toward a renewed public-private partnership aimed at developing and marketing improved clean energy technologies -- is ripe for passage in a Washington under split rule.

Freed spoke with SolveClimate's McGowan, saying:
Some sort of climate and energy legislation will eventually emerge but first, the public and private sectors need to cooperate to invent, demonstrate, deploy and market the green batteries, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, advanced nuclear power, renewables and other technologies that are actually competitive with fossil fuels.

"As a country, we seem to have lost our way on that model," Freed said, adding that it propelled the success of the airline industry, the Internet and the biotechnology sector. "How do we go about turning that around?"

Congress needs to champion this push with thoughtful, comprehensive and bipartisan legislation, Freed explained, but the American public, business leaders, universities, entrepreneurs, large companies and the financial sector have to act in tandem.
Building a new bipartisan consensus for clean energy progress may take some time, but according to Freed, the effort can begin in the next Congress and external pressures may keep the heat on Congress to act sooner rather than later:
"This is going to take longer than a campaign. It's much like the health care debate in 1993," Freed said, adding that the need for reform was obvious but the mechanism being deployed all those years ago collapsed under its own weight. "It took 17 years to rebuild that coalition. With energy, we don't have the time to wait 17 years but we need to learn those lessons."

Politicians and everybody else involved have to realize that America is playing catch-up because its dawdling has ceded much of the clean technology market to China, South Korea, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.

"This has to be an issue that resonates in Minnesota, Tennessee and Ohio as much as it does in Oregon, Washington and Connecticut," Freed said.
Beware the Tea Party

While there are many strong motivations for bipartisan legislation to clean up, secure, and modernize the U.S. energy system while developing competitive U.S. clean energy industries, progress may ultimately depend on what kind of Republican party takes office in November.

According to Jim DiPeso, vice president of the Michigan-based non-profit Republicans for Environmental Protection, the radicalizing influence of the surging Tea Party movement may torpedo chances for clean energy legislation in the coming Congress. As DiPeso tells SolveClimate:
"All bets are off because those [Tea Party] newcomers will have different ideas about what priorities should be tackled. ... Then, you're looking at gridlock."

His wish is that President Obama, [House Minority Leader John] Boehner and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell will be "smart" enough to mollify dissenters and follow President Clinton's lead of the mid-1990s by collaborating on a centrist agenda. ...

[DiPeso] and [Bipartisan Policy Center's] Bledsoe echo one another with their comments about why partisan bickering and backing on the climate front can be so detrimental.

"It's a huge mistake for climate activists to become partisan," Bledsoe emphasized. ...

"You can blame both sides for the polarization but it doesn't matter who is to blame. We need to fix it and that's the only way forward."

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