DENVER -- When Democrats from across the Mountain States gathered here Thursday for a Project New West conference on the region's changing politics, no cause ignited more enthusiasm than speeding the development of the alternative-energy industry.
It was the same story earlier this week in Las Vegas, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., convened party heavyweights for his second "National Clean Energy Summit."
Rarely has the Democratic Party identified as unconditionally with an industry as it is doing today with the emerging clean-energy sector, the companies and investors leading America's transition toward a lower-carbon economy that relies less on fossil fuels and more on efficiency and such renewable power sources as solar, wind, and biomass. If the industry grows as its supporters hope, this emerging alliance could profoundly shape not only the nation's energy strategy in the 21st century, but also its politics.
Because they generate so much wealth, energy interests always influence politics. For decades, oil and gas companies have treated Washington like an especially lucrative well: They have pursued tax breaks (such as the oil depletion allowance) and diplomatic help in securing supplies abroad while resisting any other federal economic or environmental regulation, such as limits on the carbon emissions linked to climate change.
To support its agenda, oil wealth has long funded conservative politics. The industry, especially the fiercely anti-government independent producers who emerged in Texas in the 1930s, provided gushers of money--first to oil-patch Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kerr, and later to Republican politicians and conservative campaigns considerably to the right of those men. Through the late 20th century, oil titans like H.L. Hunt, Hugh Roy Cullen, and the Koch family provided huge sums to causes that ranged from uncompromisingly conservative to crackpot paranoid. Even now, the oil and gas industry remains a bedrock source of funding for Republicans: From 1990 through early this year, the industry contributed $241 million to federal campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Three-fourths of that money went to Republicans.
Compared with the oil and gas supertanker, the clean energy industry today is a dinghy, minuscule in its contributions to national energy needs and campaign treasuries. But the industry is poised to grow, as concern about climate change prompts reduced reliance on fossil fuels. The federal Energy Information Administration, for instance, recently projected that if the U.S. approves legislation capping carbon emissions, renewable sources should provide between one-third and two-thirds of all new electrical-generation capacity built through 2030.
As this alternative energy industry expands, it is evolving along a very different path than the fossil fuel giants followed. Most of the clean-energy industry's leading voices think that their prosperity depends upon government involvement on four fronts: regulating carbon emissions so that coal, oil, and other fossil fuels bear the cost of their contribution to climate change; mandating that utilities use more renewable power; setting stiff energy-efficiency standards; and increasing federal research into new technologies.
Those policies are all priorities for President Obama and most congressional Democrats. And all, except possibly expanded research, are opposed by most Republicans. "Clean energy has the potential to become a backbone of the Democratic Party because so many Republicans oppose the policies that would boost their industry," said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which co-sponsored the Reid summit.
That union of interests is already emerging, albeit in miniature form. Three-fourths of the alternative-energy industry's campaign contributions in 2008 (a meager $1.9 million) went to Democrats. More intriguingly, employment in the industry is trending toward blue (Democratic) states, partly because they are more likely to adopt the policies (renewable power requirements for utilities, for example) that nurture the industry. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts report calculated that clean-energy industries now provide about 770,000 U.S. jobs. (That's only about half of 1 percent of the total workforce but, strikingly, already three-fifths as many jobs as the conventional energy industry generates.) Obama won 18 of the 21 states with the largest number of green jobs and eight of the 10 attracting the most clean-energy venture capital.
This nascent partnership won't provide Democrats enough near-term benefits to materially improve their prospects in what could be a difficult 2010 election. But, over time, the convergence between green and blue could become the economic equivalent of Obama's strength with fast-growing demographic groups, notably racial minorities and the vast millennial generation: Each trend allies Democrats with groups rising in influence.
Some skeptics doubt that the clean-energy industry will ever grow as big as its boosters forecast, but under any scenario it will increase its share of the energy pie -- enlarging its economic and political clout. And that could help fuel Democrats for decades to come.