The small, energy-scarce states in New England breed environmentally-friendly Republicans like no other region in the country.
When he was the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Mitt Romney was the breed’s prototype. Now, as the presumptive Republican White House nominee, it’s an open question as to whether he will ever again embrace the policies he did as the Bay State’s governor.
“Romney was very convinced on the no-regrets strategy: Do all those things that help the economy, reduce oil dependence—and by the way, they improve the climate situation,” said Douglas Foy, who was the governor’s “super secretary” overseeing energy, environment, transportation, and housing issues. “He wasn’t a knee-jerk environmental person, but he was quite open-minded.”
A year after he took office in 2003, Romney released a comprehensive, 52-page Climate Protection Plan that explained how Massachusetts planned to combat climate change. The ambitious plan supported more energy-efficient buildings and renewable energy. Romney also pledged to work with other New England states on a regional cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse-gas emissions.
“The same policies that protect the climate also promote energy efficiency, smart business practices, and improve the environment in which our citizens live and work,” Romney wrote in a letter prefacing the plan.
Romney was also a leader on other clean-air issues. In 2003, he stood in front of a coal-fired power plant that was shutting down and said he wouldn’t support jobs that kill people, referring to the plant’s toxic emissions. His Attorney General’s office was active in key lawsuits that have resulted in some of the major Clean Air Act rules that the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency is promulgating today.
Romney’s actions on climate change and other environmental issues have been par for the course for both Democratic and Republican governors in the Northeast and, to an extent, their representatives in Congress.
“There is a long tradition in the Northeast of Republicans being quite sympathetic to environmental issues and conservation issues,” said Foy, who was CEO and president of New England’s premier environmental advocacy group, the Conservation Law Foundation, for 25 years before working for Romney. “We don’t have a lot of land or resources to waste, so we need to be careful and efficient.”
New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Delaware, and Rhode Island all made the list of the 10 states that produce the least energy in the country, according to 2010 federal data, the most recent available. Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey aren’t far behind. The region also faces the brunt of pollution from the Midwest because of the way the airstream travels.
Energy and environment experts from Massachusetts cite Romney’s hiring of Foy as a bold sign that he was committed to these issues. Some conservatives have described Foy as a radical environmentalist. Foy abruptly left the administration in early 2006, just two months after Romney decided to not participate in the regional cap-and-trade system against Foy’s recommendation, and shortly before Romney began exploring a presidential bid for the 2008 election cycle.
Fast-forward to Romney’s latest presidential run. His campaign website doesn’t even have a section on the environment. The only part that mentions environmental protection in much detail is the section on regulations, which includes Romney’s criticism of President Obama’s health care law and EPA rules. Romney has also pledged to exempt carbon-dioxide emissions from the Clean Air Act and has equivocated on climate-change science.
“There’s a big difference between the Northeast and the rest of the country on these issues,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advised Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now president of the influential conservative think tank American Action Forum. “He’s running for president, and you have to decide what do voters think are important issues to talk about. You can’t find a poll that puts any of these issues near the top.”
Northeastern Republicans not running for president are more outspokenly committed to clean-air regulations than Republicans in most other parts of the country. (Climate-change policies, however, are now politicized in all corners of the country.)
Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who flirted briefly with a presidential run last year, has for the last couple of months been touting a policy “of not allowing new coal-fired power plants to be built in New Jersey,” according to press releases issued in April and June.
The policy caught the attention of Washington environmental and public-health experts because inside the Beltway, such a statement from a Republican would be unthinkable as the party’s leadership blames Obama’s EPA for waging a war on coal. To be sure, Christie’s statement is mostly symbolic, because New Jersey had no plans to build any new coal plants.
On Capitol Hill, tea party groups and fossil-fuel interests fighting hard to ensure that Romney moves to the right on these issues are giving most Northeastern Republicans a pass—at least for now.
The clearest and most recent example of this came when all New England Republican senators, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts, voted against a GOP measure that would have nixed a major EPA rule controlling mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. Conservative and fossil-fuel groups lobbied coal-state Democrats and at least one Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, but they didn’t focus nearly as much on Northeastern Republicans.
For a GOP hoping to take control of the Senate and keep control of the House, a New England Republican who is sympathetic to environmental issues is still better than any kind of New England Democrat.
This article appears in the July 12, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.