Is a Conservative Climate Movement Heating Up?

Optimists see hope in growing GOP support for renewable energy, but many Republicans still steer clear of anything that says climate change.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval with Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Credit: Max Whittaker/Getty Images

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, meeting here with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has vowed to "solidify Nevada's position as a national leader in clean and renewable energy." But the same week he signed a net metering bill for solar, he vetoed raising the state's clean energy goal. Credit: Max Whittaker/Getty

This story was updated with two more Congress members joining the Climate Solutions Caucus on July 25 and the North Carolina governor signing the solar legislation on July 27.

In North Carolina, the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, recently agreed to make it easier for residents to install rooftop solar. In California, a handful of Republican lawmakers crossed party lines to extend California's cap-and-trade program for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And in Congress, 46 House Republicans joined Democrats to protect a climate study in a bill on military programs.

Are these the stirrings of a nascent conservative climate action movement?

If so, they are hesitant and ambivalent.

The same North Carolina lawmakers who voted for rooftop solar also approved a cap on solar development and dealt a setback to wind power; the Californians won concessions to big oil; and in the U.S. House, many climate caucus members have voted to roll back one regulation after another this year, and demurred on the defense of the Paris climate treaty or its scientific underpinnings.

But climate optimists see glimmers of hope—and if they are right, it could portend eventually re-establishing American leadership in the global climate fight.

The Republican party dominates the legislative and executive branches in Washington and the states alike—the White House, Congress, 33 governorships and 32 legislatures.

That's why green advocacy groups are taking note of conservative clean energy advocacy organizations now working in at least 16 states and a bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus that has more than doubled its ranks since Trump took office. With its "Noah's ark" rule that members enroll in bipartisan pairs, the caucus's 50 members include 25 Republicans—more than one out of 10 Republicans in the House.

"We're starting to see a ripple effect of this growing group of Republicans making it easier and easier for other Republicans to vote the right way on the climate issue," said Jay Butera, Congressional liaison for the Citizens Climate Lobby, a non-partisan group that favors a tax on carbon.

Hardly a groundswell, their numbers show how difficult it is for many in the GOP to break from the party line on climate—and how much pressure dissenters face from highly organized and well-funded foes, even when people in their districts consider climate change and clean energy a priority.

"If you talk to conservatives from a purely ideological point of view about free markets, competition, choice, personal responsibility and economic development, they are in favor of clean energy," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, who worked with the Tea Party and a group called the Conservatives for Energy Freedom in a coalition that successfully fought anti-solar ballot measures in Florida last year. But there's a counterweight: "the fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers begin to frame clean energy as a left-wing conspiracy that needs to be opposed."

"And they bring a lot of money to the political calculus," Smith added. "It takes a very strong-willed, independent solid conservative to oppose those moneyed interests."

That may be why, when members of the Climate Solutions Caucus wrote a letter in April urging Trump not to abandon the Paris treaty on climate change, fewer than one in four of the Republican members of the caucus signed it. All the Democrats did.

"I think the politics of that was dicey for people in the caucus," said Mark Reynolds, executive director of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

Similarly, a widely noted House floor vote to insist that the Defense Department write a report to Congress detailing the national security risks commanders face from climate change was more an endorsement of what the generals have been saying than of what the scientists assert.

Even Democrats, in a defensive crouch during the brief floor fight, took pains to reassure colleagues across the aisle that this was not a referendum on the causes or solutions to climate change.

The report, said Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), "is not about causes of climate change, nor do we discuss specific emissions targets, or green energy goals." And Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) chimed in: "We don't have to agree on what causes climate change."

Free-Market Ideology Provides Cover

For many Republicans, free-market ideology provides enough cover to embrace clean energy technology—even without making a climate change case.

"I'm about finding the lowest-cost source of energy," said Rep. John Szoka, the Republican conference leader in the North Carolina legislature. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he represents Fayetteville, the home of Fort Bragg. It also is home to one of the largest of the 300 solar farms that have sprung up across the state.

"In 2012, when I went up to Raleigh, I actually shared the views of some of my Republican friends: renewable energy—bad," he recalled. "Why am I paying somebody else so they could go out and hug a tree?"

But Szoka said he began digging into the data. He concluded that government policies that encourage renewable energy are more explicit, but no different than the tax breaks for oil and gas or the federal insurance for nuclear energy. "Every form of energy is subsidized," he said.

Rep. John Szoka. Credit: North Carolina Legislature

North Carolina state Rep. John Szoka

But he is a long way from embracing other actions to address climate change. "You'll never hear 'climate change as a reason for renewable energy' come past my lips," Szoka said, noting that although he thinks the Earth is warming, he is not convinced that it is caused by humans. In addition to supporting renewables, he also supports development of a proposed natural gas pipeline across the state.

The driving force behind conservative support for clean energy is not so much concern over the impact of fossil fuels, as it is standing up for other businesses that aim to produce or use cleaner power.

In North Carolina, those businesses include tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook that moved their energy-hungry data centers to the Tar Heel State and then addressed their commitments to clean energy by lobbying state officials and Duke Energy for favorable renewable energy policy.

By 2015, North Carolina was No. 2 in the nation, behind California, in cumulative installed solar capacity. North Carolina's first commercial-scale wind farm opened early this year on the state's northeast coast to power Amazon cloud services. The project's payments to private landowners and taxes will inject $1.1 million into the local economy each year.

Across North Carolina, there were more than 34,000 clean energy jobs in 2016, up more than 30 percent over the previous year, according to the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association. (That is more than double the number of coal mining jobs in nearby West Virginia, the No. 1 state for coal employment.)

Powerful Fossil Fuel Lobbies Play Hardball

But there has been a concerted drive to turn back North Carolina's renewable energy policy. The petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers spent nearly $500,000 on North Carolina House and Senate races between 2010 and 2016, according to research by the Democratic Super-PAC American Bridge, and they play hardball against Republicans who don't toe the line.

Lobbyists for the Koch group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) seethed after a House committee defeated a measure drafted by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to repeal North Carolina's renewable energy standard in 2013, the Raleigh News and Observer reported. "This was a horrible vote by Republicans, and they need to be held accountable," said Dallas Woodhouse, AFP's state legislative director at the time (now head of the state GOP).

Last year, AFP organized phone banks and neighborhood canvassing in the primaries to defeat one of the most prominent Republicans who voted against the repeal. He was able to keep his seat, but primary challenges from the right have been a constant threat for Republican incumbents for more than a decade; GOP members of Congress with moderate positions on climate change have been among the targets.

Two groups in North Carolina funded by the Koch brothers and other wealthy right-wing donors, the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation, spell out the conservative orthodoxy by generating talking points against renewable energy. Their rhetoric is picked up by GOP members in contentious debates in the capitol.

"We've had internal caucuses where we just fought and fought and fought," Szoka said.  Hoping to quell the rancor, Szoka and a fellow Republican lawmaker drafted a legislative compromise on renewable energy. Their bill put a cap on solar development—addressing concerns raised by the state's largest utility, Duke Energy, about the cost of renewable energy subsidies. But the legislation also made it easier for households to finance solar rooftop installations by codifying their right to third-party leasing.

The bill garnered enough bipartisan support to sail through North Carolina's House in a lopsided 108-11 vote in June. But in the state Senate, the GOP leadership added a moratorium on permits for new wind energy project or expansions while a study is conducted on wind farms' effect on military installations.

The resulting legislation has divided clean energy advocates.

Jim Warren, executive director of the environmental group NC Warn, urged Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the measure. Warren argued that, in addition to halting wind development, it will slow down solar, while giving no benefit to North Carolina consumers; NC Warn has long argued that there is nothing in state law that bars third-party leasing of rooftop solar.

But Sean Gallagher, vice president for state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), argued that Cooper should sign the measure because it would bring some market certainty to solar in North Carolina for four years and avoid litigation with Duke that would put renewable development in a worse position. He said the wind moratorium was disappointing, and SEIA and others would work to undo it. "It's a compromise," Gallagher said. "In legislation, nobody gets everything they want."

The governor signed the legislation on July 27, but he also issued an executive order the same day directing the state's Department of Environmental Quality to continue recruiting wind energy investments and processing applications so wind power projects would be ready to come online quickly once the 18-month moratorium end. 

"I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium," Cooper said. "However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation."

Clean Energy Equals Economic Development

A similar dynamic has played out in a few other states.

"What we are seeing is a recognition among leaders across the Republican Party that this is about embracing market competition and realizing that renewable energy policy is an economic development tool," said J.R. Tolbert, vice president for state programs at Advanced Energy Economy, an advocacy organization of advanced energy businesses.

Among the Republican governors he lauded: Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who signed a comprehensive renewable energy package passed by the Democrat-controlled state legislature last year; Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who vetoed his GOP legislature's effort to extend a freeze that it had placed on the state's clean energy standards; and Gov. Brian Sandoval, who vowed to "solidify Nevada's position as a national leader in clean and renewable energy" at a bill-signing ceremony last month at Tesla's Las Vegas warehouse.

Sandoval was signing a bill to restore the state's popular "net metering" program. The program had been killed in 2015 by the state's utility commissioners, all three of whom were appointed by Sandoval, then was revived by the state's Democrat-led legislature. Tesla, which early this year began battery production at its giant gigafactory in Nevada, said it would resume selling rooftop solar once net metering was restored. But to address the objections of the utility NV Energy, the rate will be lower than residents previously enjoyed, and it will decline over time.

The same week he signed the net metering bill, Sandoval vetoed legislation that would have required that 40 percent of the state's electricity come from clean energy sources by 2030, up from the current target of 25 percent by 2025. He also vetoed a community solar program.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown was able to declare a bipartisan victory last week when he garnered Republican support for extending to 2030 the state's cap-and-trade program—the most progressive climate action effort in the nation. But to win those GOP votes, Brown agreed to bar local air districts from directly regulating carbon emissions or setting rules to protect neighborhoods that are disproportionately burdened by pollution from fossil fuel facilities. The concessions won praise from the oil industry lobbying group Western States Petroleum Association, but they mean that neighborhoods around the state's 18 oil refineries will lose leverage to address their persistent air pollution woes.

'You Better Learn to Speak Republican'

Still, groups around the country are trying to challenge the notion that Republicans are in thrall to fossil fuel interests. Organizations in 16 states joined last year into a fledgling umbrella group—the Conservative Energy Network—to share information and ideas.

"If you're in a state run by Republicans, you better learn to speak Republican," said Mike Franklin, who heads government affairs for the year-old Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum and is a former energy lobbyist for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

The group is not lobbying on specific legislation, but it is trying to craft and deliver a message on clean energy that conservatives can embrace. "The way we've positioned ourselves ... is to stand for the proposition that, technologically, things have changed," Franklin said. "And perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink our siloed, highly over-regulated monopoly model in a way that leverages things like wind and solar, while giving customers a leg up."

One leader of a state conservative clean energy group declined to be named in a story about its efforts: "It doesn't help us at all if we're in a publication about climate," the group's director said. "It hurts our work if there's a snippet from me in InsideClimate or anything climate-sounding. Our opponents will jump all over that."

"It's a shame that 'climate' has become a toxic word," said Reynolds, director of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

But he said his group's activists don't get much pushback on climate science when they meet members of Congress.

"We decided strategically five years ago, we couldn't get something passed unless it was Republicans introducing it or it being bipartisan," Reynolds said. "It seems any time a Democrat introduces something on climate, it becomes partisan immediately. So we've always felt the pathway had to come from the Republican side of the aisle."

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