Conservatives from many sides of the country are uniting behind energy reform.
The reasons may vary, but the end result is that policy is going to be affected by a change in those supporting new ways of thinking about this large, complex, old problem.
In the United States, energy is the heart of a multi-billion dollar industry that has become as essential to our way of life. Until very recently, energy was simply the fuel in our cars or the light we turned on. We paid the bill and that was the end of it. Today, many of us are taking charge of some aspect of our energy use, from how we use it, to rooftop solar, to choosing appliances that are more efficient. We turn our thermostats up or down, and consider energy savings technologies that do the most energy intensive work when the rates are lowest.
On a global level, energy procurement has had a dramatic effect on national security. Consumers and taxpayers are increasingly reluctant to purchase oil from countries that do not share our interests. The military has become deeply concerned, putting resources into ensuring that home bases can be independent of the national grid for days or weeks. For the military, the cost of providing energy for forward bases is counted in the lives of American servicemen: every drop of fuel must be transported in vulnerable vehicles, and every battery must be carried on the backs of soldiers.
Finally, energy is not cost neutral. Energy has waste in the form of heat, carbon and other gases, and particulates such as soot and smog. The costs of dealing with the external impacts of energy production has fallen heavily on taxpayers through the costs of removing the externalities and paying for negative health outcomes such as asthma. Those living near facilities that are high emitters bear the brunt of poor air quality, although they may use a fraction of the energy or none of the products produced. These issues have made energy policy something on which more and more people want a voice. Among them is YC4ER, Young Conservatives for Energy Reform.
Young Conservatives for Energy Reform
Michele Combs, Founder and Chairman, said, "We work from the grass roots because we know energy is high on their [young conservatives] list, and it is going to have impact on Senate races."
In August of 2016, YC4ER held a national conference in Washington DC, in conjunction with the Christian Coalition. Ms. Combs said that this year's conference was a huge success, bringing back people from the previous year and many more. "We're constantly promoting and educating." she added. Her comments were supported by Ash Mason, Chairman of the Christian Coalition of Florida. “You can’t imagine how successful and important this summit is for conservatives. This could become a platform for Republicans. It’s the first step in a long conversation. Summits like this show we have things we can agree on.”
A USA, Rock the Vote poll found that an overwhelming 80% (favor) vs 10% (don't favor), of millennials surveyed say the United States should transition to mostly clean or renewable energy by 2030, an ambitious goal that would surely require the leadership of the next president. By more than 2-1, they say the government should invest more heavily in buses and rail
Tyler Duvelius, the Christian Coalition’s state director in Ohio, added, "This [energy reform] has been an issue that has motivated me for quite some time. It doesn't get enough attention. I'm able to be out there and really give a voice to my concerns."
He went on to add that bipartisan politics takes the theatrics out of the conversation. As a Christian Coalition member, he doesn't endorse any candidate, but wants to hold politicians accountable for their actions. He believes that the coalition's massive grass roots organization – including visiting churches struggling with utility bills – shows that conservatives can keep pressure on politicians, while giving energy reform a human face.
Mr. Duvelius added, "There’s big money on both sides, so this will be won on a grass roots level. It's an honor to be able to lead, but real change takes hard work. This isn't something we can do overnight. No sixty second commercial will do this. We're just bringing people into this one person at a time. Ask any of my colleagues, our hard work is paying off. We're seeing a lot more conversation around energy reform."
Mr. Mason continued the conversation saying, "We are a grass roots group that has stood for the family for over 25 years. But the message has been wrong. There's no reason to make legislators say how they feel about climate change or green energy when 80% of us want to keep US borders safe and provide choice.” He sees financial benefits in renewable energy, adding that Florida could be the ‘Silicon Valley of Solar.’ Although China is the largest manufacture of solar, states like North Carolina are making big strides in solar manufacturing. He thinks that America can – and should – be leading. "There are solar panels and boards, geothermal heat and so much that go into wind turbines. It's growing by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.”
One of Mr. Mason's issues is local regulations. For example, states such as Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma don't allow the sale of energy from home renewables to a 3rd party. He believes that anyone who wants to become grid independent should not have to pay utility costs for transmission they aren't using.
He added that net metering – a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. – still has problem for utilities. "So there's a range of financial and environmental benefits. That's how we present it to Congress. We want to promote freedoms and liberty. We understand the language of government: ten to fifteen calls from church leaders sway a legislator.”
YC4ER conducted a poll to assess attitudes of young conservatives. They found that while 50% considered jobs and the economy as the number one threat, only 7% thought energy a number one concern. The respondents picked the Democrats 6% over Republicans as able to act on climate change, but trusted Republicans 55% over Democrats to protect national security. This is particularly important in view of the information from the poll: the most important reason for Millennial conservatives to support energy reform is to reduce US dependence on imported oil from the Middle East.
While YC4ER focuses on persuasion and education, another group, RepublicEN, more aggressively focuses on policies.
Alex Bozmoski, Director of Strategy & Operations, said that “fixing a market failure with a government failure doesn’t level the playing field.” For eco-conservatives, the market failure is that the external costs – such as pollution from particulates, carbon and other gases – are not included in the costs of producing energy. As he said, “Because the market is tilted in favor of incumbent fuels, they have a free pass to pollute. Supporting challenger fuels has lead to subsidies, when it would be better to remove the advantage from current practices.”
He went on to add that conservatives expect government actions to have some failure. Often it makes more sense for the government to do nothing, but if there is harm, then it’s time to look at government action and minimize failure by isolating the market failure. For RepublicEN, the market failure is the lack of a price on carbon. Fixing it would mean taxing the specific outcome that is the problem.
“What you need is certainty. The problem with subsidies is that they are unpredictable from year to year, a very large problem for projects which stretch over five, ten and twenty years. Secondly, we’re taxing the income – what the company makes in revenue – and not the outcome – which is the unwanted externality.” As an example of a subsidy he feels is no longer working, Mr. Bozmoski mentioned the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy. Wind has had a remarkable rise in installations coupled with a dramatic decline in the cost of construction. Since the PTC is based on the amount of energy that a turbine produces, there is an incentive to bring prices way down to maximize the sale of output when production is high, out-bidding other forms of energy. Such pricing makes existing nuclear uncompetitive, threatening plants that balance the load during peak demand or when the wind isn’t blowing. A very hot, still day can challenge the grid, annoying consumers at best, damaging the grid at worst. Such price supports could render energy storage uncompetitive, even though it is potentially a more palatable solution than nuclear for the problem of intermittent supply. Simply building more wind energy without addressing the problem that turbines only work when the wind blows is not a long term solution.
Bob Inglis, a founder and Executive Director of RepublicEN, and former US Representative from South Carolina, added that the rise in CO2 levels has economic consequences that cannot be ignored. He believes that internalizing (bringing the problem onto the emitter’s balance sheet) negative externalities will support enterprise innovation, and that the most direct way to accomplish this is to tax carbon or other negative outcome.
Exxon has been making the case with its U.S. counterparts to support a carbon tax, arguing that the industry must not oppose all climate policies, according to people familiar with Exxon’s thinking. WSJ
He sees the idea gaining ground, even among fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobile. “A carbon tax can be revenue neutral,” he said. “The idea is to give the revenue back to the tax payers.” He mentioned that Milton Friedman, on Phil Donahue in 1979, when asked what to do about pollution said, “Why tax it of course.”
Another reason he likes the idea of a tax is that congress simply doesn’t have time to build the kind of political will that can address rising carbon levels in an industry that has 40 year timelines. “It’s ‘solution aversion’,” he said, “The solution is so confusing that people, doubting the solution, doubt the problem.”
As an example of market failure, he cited the fracking industry. Mr. Inglis said that there’s nothing really proprietary about what’s in fracking solutions. He believes the industry can be more transparent and take the steps needed to make it safe. “If something shows up in Ms. Jones’ sink, then take responsibility and fix it,” he said. A pro-active industry could address the problems of fracking externalities, such as chemicals leaching into groundwater, efficiently because they are the experts. Leaving regulation to government effectively puts those not experienced in engineering in charge of complex problems. Putting a tax on those externalities would raise the costs of poor environmental policies, making addressing them profitable.
When asked why conservatives have not, until recently, publicly championed energy reform, he said, “Well first of all, the message seems to be, ‘Let’s all walk, eat bugs and shiver in the dark. And then conservatives don't like regulatory solutions, it reduces liberty.” He said that the clear message conservatives have gotten is that they are responsible for the death of the environment. “Conservatives are powerful individualists. Their reaction is ‘Don't tell me I've killed it’. It's a double whammy. Guilt without redemption leads to powerlessness and paralysis.”
He countered by saying what progressives should be saying is, “It’s exciting!” Adding “Conservatives want to be able to say, ‘This is what I did in the war. Energy was a revolution and I was there.’”
Mr. Inglis sees opportunity everywhere in a green economy. “There are amazing things happening. Salt water batteries are an example. It’s a massive opportunity: huge prize for anyone who can get there.” His enthusiasm for market solutions is infectious. For many in eco-conservatives, their passion for energy reform is deeply connected to their faith. Going beyond being ‘stewards of the environment’, energy reform is a matter of conscience arising from personal experience and conviction. As these leaders expand their influence, they are a sign of new leadership and direction. Particularly in the 2016 political environment, such positive enthusiasm and passion is welcome and refreshing. As Mr. Inglis said, “It’s a great time to be a conservative concerned about the future of energy.”