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GOP Strategy on Renewables: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Arnold Schwarzenegger has always held an uncomfortable place in the Republican Party. His ascent from the silver screen to the Sacramento hot seat at first seemed Regeanesque. But these days, he's seen by many in his party as a traitor, as much for his personal failings as his inability to stay on message.

So maybe his op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post carries little weight. But maybe it speaks directly to what the Republican Party used to be. In today’s terms, we call them moderates or right-leaning independents. But that’s the voice that may ultimately decide the presidential election, though you wouldn’t know it from the stance taken by the current field of conservatives.

Arnold’s issue on Sunday? Yes, renewable energy. It’s something he knows a thing or two about. As governor of California, Schwarzenegger was instrumental in setting the stage for where the state is today. It’s the economic engine of the country’s burgeoning renewables industries. You don’t have to tell him that the right investments lead to the right jobs. In fact, most of California’s representatives have been relatively quiet even as the Solyndra fiasco unfolded in their back yard. (Yes, those were pictures of Arnold at the Solyndra groundbreaking). In California, clean technology is big business, and even the most ardent conservatives, like Rep. Darrell Issa, have worked to fuel that engine with government backing.

Now that he's out of office, Schwarzenegger is concerned that the GOP is going so far right that it’s dropping some core values along the way. Chief among them are security and the desire to lead in the technology sectors that will shape the world. There is a role for government, he says. And done right, it pays back handsomely. Here’s a taste from his op-ed:

Imagine what the renewables industry would look like if the federal government leveled the playing field and showed the same dedication we have in California. Our green sector is the brightest spot in California’s economy, having grown 10 times faster than any other business sector since 2005. Today, one in every four jobs in the U.S. solar industry is in California. One-third of U.S. clean-tech venture capital flows into our state. Nurturing the green-tech sector was the right thing for me to do as governor, and it is the right thing for the federal government to do.

More than anything, though, he was challenging members of the GOP field to show their hand on energy. That’s unlikely to happen in the primary as they all jockey to be on the right side (ideologically speaking) of the issue. There will be some room to move toward the center during a general election, but it’s unlikely we’ll have any real movement unless President Obama forces the issue. He won’t do that until the jobs picture brightens well beyond the current 8.6 percent unemployment rate.

So what we have now is a Republican field fairly unified in its vision of energy. In a nutshell, the narrative is this: Too many rules and restrictions have forced the U.S. to look elsewhere for its energy sources. Lifting these regulations, especially on exploration for oil and natural gas, will give us the energy security we need. They go on to say that we need to rely on an “all of the above” strategy, which is usually a more judicious way of saying “we need to dig for more oil, natural gas and coal, and we need to move ahead with our nuclear energy policy.” As far as renewables go, it’s been “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

With that in mind, we perused each of the candidate’s official websites to get their official word on where they stood on energy policy. Here’s a quick primer on what we found, and we placed the candidates in order of most to least renewables friendly. While Rick Santorum is still tracking in the polls, he did not take a stand on energy policy on his site, so he’s not on our list. But just for the record, he’s for expanded exploration of oil and gas and against the federal government “picking winners and losers.”

#rewpage#

Images courtesy Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Jon Huntsman

The candidate with the most broad experience (governor of Utah and U.S. ambassador to China) comes to the table with the most moderate platform. In some circles, Huntsman is viewed as the candidate most able to beat Obama in a general election since he’d pull from the political center. But in light of today’s politics, he’s looking like a dead horse. But he does have the most nuanced energy plan of the bunch — he’s actually gone as far as say the “R” word. Here’s what he has to say.

The federal government needs to ensure open markets for natural gas and other alternative fuels in order to stabilize prices and provide a predictable investment environment.

Federal regulations are not expediting America’s conversion to a fully modern “smart grid” system — something badly needed if the next generation, for example, chooses to charge electric vehicles in their garages at night. In addition, completing new transmission lines to capture renewables from wind and solar would create thousands of new jobs.

Methods of energy production vary greatly across the fifty states.  The Northwest has world-class hydropower facilities, California leads the nation in geothermal, and more than 15 percent of Iowa’s energy generation comes from wind. Despite this diversity, EPA rules prohibit states from coming up with their own ways to reduce pollution at the lowest cost to local businesses. For example, EPA should revive state authority to allow centrally fueled fleets to convert to cleaner alternative fuels to help meet our air quality standards at much lower cost to consumers.

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Newt Gingrich

The current front-runner (bet you wouldn’t have guessed that a month ago) is pretty hard to figure out on many matters. He’s a fiscal hawk with a soft spot for immigrant families. He thinks government takes too much of your money, yet he’ll gladly accept it by the suitcase-full in his role as “a historian” with Freddie Mac. And on energy, the guy who cozied up on a couch and gazed lovingly at Nancy Pelosi for a TV commercial urging action on climate change has offered us precious little about our energy future. That is, beyond the usual, “Drill, baby, drill.”

A couple of interesting points for an energy plan popped up on his website. One is to “reduce frivolous lawsuits that hold up energy production by enacting loser pays laws to force the losers in an environmental lawsuit to pay all legal costs for the other side.” Cape Wind may like this one. The other is to “finance cleaner energy research and projects with new oil and gas royalties.” Does he mean more taxes?

One last interesting strategy. The man who bills himself as the “solutions” candidate wants to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with the Environmental Solutions Agency.

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Mitt Romney

Romney cut his political teeth on Cape Wind, and his appetite to touch the topic apparently stopped there. Romney is moving farther to the right by the day, and his energy policy is a clear example. Earlier in the campaign, he seemed to indicate that the Earth is warming, and it may be our fault. Now, he’s continuously distancing himself from those remarks and he tries to win over members of his increasingly conservative party. But if history is any indication, he'll quickly become more moderate if he gains the nomination.

But it’s clear that at least now, Romney has an impatient approach to the renewables industry. On his site, he attacks Obama’s investment in clean technologies.

As the Obama administration wages war against oil and coal, it has been spending billions of dollars on alternative energy forms and touting its creation of 'green' jobs. But it seems to be operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation. The 'green' technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace, and studies have shown that for every 'green' job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.

While the government should play a role in clean technologies, he says it should only be at the research and development phase.

#rewpage#

Rick Perry

Once the party's darling, Perry is fading fast, and it’s likely he’ll soon take a seat next to Herman Cain. But you’d think a governor who promotes job growth would point to the wind industry in Texas as Exhibit A in policy that puts people to work.

But on the national stage, Perry has promoted the elimination of the Energy Department, the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a solemn pledge to kill any cap-and-trade and national Renewable Portfolio Standard legislation that lands on his desk.

His biggest push has been to eliminate subsidies to all forms of energy, though he doesn’t say how he’ll do this equitably across the industries. What he does say offers clues to how he’d go about doing it.

We believe that as a precursor to comprehensive tax reform (moving towards a flatter corporate tax code), we must eliminate as many specific subsidies and tax credits as possible. Under a Perry administration, no new specific tax incentives will be issued for energy development, eliminating government sponsorship for certain types of energy. In order to allow emerging energy sources to reevaluate and reorient their business model towards a more competitive environment, existing specific tax incentives would not be eliminated immediately, but instead would be allowed to expire when they come up for renewal.

It’s really not too hard to read between the lines on this one.

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Michele Bachmann

Bachmann, as Gov. Perry would say, “really stepped in it” when she promised $2 gasoline earlier in her campaign. For some, that showed a willingness to say anything to get elected. To others, it showed a wild lack of understanding of how gas prices are set.

She’s no longer talking about $2 gas when she’s president, but her website does offer clues to how she sees America’s energy policy — and it has little to do with renewables. Bachmann’s “all-of-the-above” strategy should be redefined as an “all-that-is-below” approach based on increased oil and gas exploration, and more coal.

Now, his Administration, overreacting to the BP oil spill, has reversed that promise and brought approvals for deepwater wells in areas open to development to a virtual standstill. Not to mention threatening energy companies with new levies and cap-and-trade rules that would further hike costs and which the President has openly acknowledged are intended to price our coal industry out of business.

#rewpage#

Ron Paul

Of all the candidates, Paul is probably the most genuine in his beliefs. And he’s also the one most likely to do what he says he’s going to do, which wouldn't bode well for the renewable energy industry. As far as energy is concerned — and just about anything else — it should be left up to the free market. No questions asked. This will likely scare off most voters, but it does make for good policy debate.

Paul is different than the other candidates because you get the feeling that the big-profit oil, gas and coal industries don’t get a special waiver on subsidies. But they’d have carte blanche on regulations. As far as environmental policy is concerned, Paul has an easy fix:

Eliminate the ineffective EPA. Polluters should answer directly to property owners in court for the damages they create — not to Washington.

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