The Next Bipartisan Energy Agenda

Published by National Journal
Energy & Environment Expert Blog

By Teryn Norris
October 14, 2010

Only a couple short months after the demise of cap and trade, a new bipartisan flag for national energy and climate reform has officially been flown. It stands as a report released yesterday called “Post-Partisan Power” by scholars at three major U.S. think tanks – including the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the centrist Brookings Institution, and the Breakthrough Institute – and represents a powerful new rallying point for U.S. clean energy and climate advocates of all stripes.

The heart of the plan is to overhaul the U.S. energy innovation system with strategic federal investments in clean energy, on the scale of $25 billion annually, to rapidly drive down the cost of low-carbon energy technologies for deployment in the U.S. and abroad. Based on the same federal model that developed microchips, the Internet, and numerous other technological breakthroughs, the investment would easily pay for itself in economic growth and increased federal tax revenue.

The bipartisan approach is already receiving widespread recognition as representing perhaps the only serious and viable alternative to cap and trade. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times, “To put it another way, the death of cap and trade doesn’t have to mean the death of climate policy. The alternative revolves around much more, and much better organized, financing for clean energy… It’s an idea with a growing list of supporters, a list that even includes conservatives – most of whom opposed cap and trade.”

These ideas are not radical. For years, numerous advocates have argued for similar approaches, including my colleagues and I, and more recent entrants include business titans like Bill Gates and John Doerr with the American Energy Innovation Council. However, only after the collapse of the previous agenda have these ideas finally broken through to receive the mainstream consideration they warrant. “Post-Partisan Power” represents the best combination of these ideas yet – including new ideas on leveraging the Department of Defense and expanding our original National Energy Education Act proposal, although omitting some elements like clean energy manufacturing – and it arrives at a crucial moment.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has already sparked harsh backlash from some of cap and trade’s true believers, including Joe Romm of ClimateProgess and David Roberts of Grist, who ridiculed the possibility of bipartisan support for clean energy investment. “At some point in the unknown future, pigs might fly,” wrote Romm, who went on to repeat the well-worn rallying cry for “a rising price on carbon dioxide or mandates.”

Of course, it is difficult to imagine real bipartisan movement on anything in the current political environment. The next Congress and beyond may very well fall into the same crippling gridlock. Energy reform on this scale has daunted U.S. presidents since the 1970s oil embargo – including President Obama to date – and it’s not clear how the dynamics will change in the near-future, or when the opportunity will beat the last two years. The extreme anti-government trend in the Tea Party, and the indiscriminate attack on both public spending and strategic technology investment, is especially troubling.

Political possibilities can shift quickly, however, and the ideas in “Post-Partisan Power” offer unique opportunities for a group of bipartisan political leaders capable of recognizing and seizing them. As Clifton Yin and I wrote in an op-ed this summer, “A Bipartisan Strategy for Energy Leadership”:

“Federal investment in energy technology can also be a political winner for congressional Democrats, Republicans, and the White House alike. Even before the Gulf oil spill, a poll by Pew Research in March found that 78% of the public favors increased government funding for research into clean energy technologies. When compared to alternatives such as carbon pricing, technology investment fares as the most popular energy policy proposal.

For Democratic leaders, this strategy would allow them to meet general public demand for reform while still satisfying their environmental base with a major achievement on clean energy. It would allow Republicans to offer a serious, pro-business alternative to cap and trade and “drill baby drill” that would boost the economy. And it would allow the White House to declare victory on President Obama’s original campaign promise to invest $15 billion per year in this sector.”

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post similarly observed of the proposal: “The politics of that are much better… It focuses the conversation on cool new technologies and making sure America dominates a new industry rather than on making it more expensive for people to drive cars or get electricity from a coal-powered plant. It doesn’t blame people, or make certain regions of the country terrifically uncomfortable.”

There is simply no other legislative agenda with such compelling and far-ranging implications for the United States than clean energy innovation, which when taken together, constitute a powerful agenda for restoring American greatness. As Democratic Pollster Stan Greenberg was recently quoted in a Thomas Friedman op-ed, “People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don’t. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats.”

Given the enormous and ever-growing stakes of energy reform, the political leaders capable of breaking the logjam will no doubt be counted by future historians among the great legislators of the early 21st century. If such a group exists, we can only hope they move quickly, and not just due to the urgency of climate change and clean energy competitiveness. As bad as the current national politics appear, they could only grow worse in the coming decade as the U.S. economy continues to stagnate and anti-investment deficit hawks gain more power as entitlement spending grows.

Whether or not our national leaders can rally behind this new flag remains to be seen, although clearly it will require sustained and growing support from a strong coalition of thought leaders and advocates. In the meantime, the clock is ticking. Cap and trade is dead, the UN climate negotiation process has collapsed, President Obama’s ideas on energy appear exhausted, and the U.S. is falling behind in the clean energy industry while Asia rises rapidly. We have cards. We should play them. Much is at stake.


About Teryn


Teryn Norris is a leading young policy strategist and currently serves as President and Founder of Americans for Energy Leadership.

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