Can Republicans learn to love clean energy?
A conservative businessman is pouring millions of dollars into making clean energy a cornerstone of the GOP.
Liberals love renewables; conservatives stick to fossil fuels. So goes the orthodoxy of US energy politics. In this election cycle – where candidates paint every topic in extremes – the poles seem even farther apart.
The truth is muddier. Polling suggests a broad swath of both Democrats and Republicans supports efforts to bolster clean energy and to limit carbon emissions from power plants. Data also suggest Americans support oil exports, nuclear energy, and, to a lesser degree, hydraulic fracturing. It’s a far cry from what’s said from the debate stage – where candidates question climate science or call for wholesale bans on fracking.
Republican businessman Jay Faison is searching for the middle ground. His organization, ClearPath, aims to convince conservative politicians that clean energy is a winning cause. This week, ClearPath opened offices in Washington and launched a $1 million digital ad campaign to promote conservative clean-energy principles.
It’s part of a broader multi-million-dollar foundation and super PAC aimed at driving GOP support for “common-sense” solutions to energy and climate problems. Winning over his fellow party members may not be easy, but Mr. Faison says embracing clean energy is critical to the future of both his party and his country.
“[Energy] flows through everything we do,” he tells the Monitor. “It drives our economy and national security, and yet it’s been a very divided debate as to how we move forward.” In its current form, that debate boils down to “windmills and sunshine on the left and ‘drill, baby, drill’ on the right,” he says.
It wasn’t always so divisive. Early on in the 2008 election cycle, candidates on both sides of the aisle agreed climate change posed a risk and that cleaner energy sources offered a solution. Since then, partisan rancor has overwhelmed the debate. Democrats accuse Republicans of being anti-science, while Republicans warn of clean-energy policies ruining the economy.
ClearPath aims to bypass the divide by focusing on the more bipartisan benefits of low- and zero-emission energy sources like natural gas, nuclear, and renewables. After all, curbing the impacts of climate change isn’t the only positive of switching to lower-carbon energy. Innovating and deploying cleaner fuels helps create jobs while reducing US dependence on foreign oil, Faison says. That’s a plus for the economy and national security, not just the climate.
“We don’t need to agree on climate to agree on conservative clean energy,” says Faison, who made his millions building and then selling an audio-visual business called SnapAV. He has invested $175 million of his own money into establishing the ClearPath Foundation. “Sometimes this argument about the problem has gotten us stuck in a ditch when, in reality, even if climate change weren’t a risk – which we think it is – these policies would still make sense.”
For Faison, a conservative clean energy agenda is about “less regulation and more innovation.” That means he eschews the top-down, executive-driven approach of the Obama Administration’s limits on carbon emissions from power plants and cars. Instead, ClearPath promotes policy reforms that it says would make it easier for companies to build and innovate new nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and natural gas.
“We think we need to make clean energy more affordable and not make traditional energy more expensive,” Faison says.
He’s not alone in his party. Last fall, a small cadre of Republican lawmakers broke rank with party leaders to sign a resolution affirming the existence of man-made climate change and the need to address it. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, has called on the GOP to confront climate change head on. The senator was by far the most vocal Republican presidential candidate on the issue, but his presidential campaign earlier this year failed to take off. Even so, according to ClearPath’s own polling, 72 percent of Republicans support accelerating the development of clean energy.
Of course, much of this hinges on how one defines “clean energy.” For Faison, that umbrella term includes energy sources that many liberals would rather do without. But there’s a shift in thinking on the left, too.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and 350.org remain skeptical of – if not downright opposed to – nuclear and natural gas, envisioning a world that runs on the combined power of wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy.
However, nuclear energy, which has a demonstrated ability to generate a very large amount of very low-carbon power, is gaining traction among environmentalists concerned about climate change. Natural gas, while still a fossil fuel with its own emissions issues, is increasingly embraced as a major contribution to the decline of carbon-heavy, pollutant-heavy coal. Groups like the Breakthrough Institute, Clean Air Task Force, and others make an environmentalist, progressive case for nuclear power – and, in some cases, hydraulic fracturing.
"... [C]oal’s share of national electricity generation has been in steep decline for over a decade, dropping from 49% in 2007 to 33% in 2015, due largely to hydraulic fracturing, which has flooded the market with cheap, lower carbon natural gas," Breakthrough Institute founder Ted Nordhaus wrote in a USA Today op-ed Thursday criticizing presidential candidate Bernie Sander's proposal to ban fracking. "Thanks to that development, in April of last year electric power sector emissions in the United States reached their lowest level since 1988, almost 50% off their 2007 peak at the dawn of the shale gas revolution."
It’s a mirroring of ClearPath’s conservative case for those very same energy sources. It suggests that both ends of the ideological spectrum are showing a willingness to reexamine and challenge their own inherited wisdom on energy and climate.
For Faison, though, ClearPath is very much about improving the long-term prospects of the Republican party through shrewd energy policy.
“Our focus is on the right side of the aisle,” he says. “We want to be a party of proposition rather than opposition.”