A Republican senator from a deep-red state gave a high-profile speech Wednesday laying out a GOP vision for America's energy future—a blueprint that includes a direct acknowledgment of the problem of global warming caused by carbon pollution and that calls for more, not less, government spending on clean-energy research.
The senator is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a moderate with serious energy-policy chops: He is the top Republican on the Senate panel that funds the Energy Department and represents a state that's home to a major Energy Department research lab, Oak Ridge.
The speech, which he delivered at the Oak Ridge facility, is in keeping with views Alexander has long espoused. But it's in stark contrast to the energy and climate positions taken by his party's leaders since 2010. After the tea party helped fuel the Republican takeover of the House, denying the science of climate change went from a fringe to a mainstream Republican view. Super PACs such as Americans for Prosperity, which has ties to the oil conglomerate Koch Industries, targeted Republicans who acknowledged climate change and supported renewable energy. During the 2012 presidential campaign, every Republican candidate but one, Jon Huntsman, questioned or denied the science concluding that carbon pollution causes global warming. And the Republican Party's national platform, unveiled last August at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., mentions climate change only once—when it criticizes President Obama for making the issue a matter of national security.
Alexander's speech highlights the widening schism on energy and climate change between moderates like himself and party leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, often named as a likely 2016 presidential candidate. At a speech in March, Rubio said, "The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception." Alexander himself has acknowledged the divide—last year, he stepped down after five years as the chairman of the Republican conference, criticizing the party's increasing ideological partisanship.
Republican strategists are paying attention, and say that Alexander's bold remarks could signal that the party is pulling away from its hard-right positions on energy of recent years.
"Lamar has always been one of the Republican Party's most creative thinkers on energy issues," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has worked for both Alexander and Rubio. "He's never been one to follow somebody else's talking points. He thinks for himself.... Tennnessee has a long record of electing and supporting creative thinkers who tend to become national leaders."
Of the fact that Alexander's energy message differs so profoundly from last year's official party platform on the issues, Ayres said, "That's where the party platform was. It's very important to make a distinction between the party in 2012 and where it will be in 2016. It will not look like the same party."
Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and strategist who has worked closely with House Republican leaders to craft their energy and climate messages in recent years, said he'll listen closely to Alexander's message.
"Lamar is a pretty interesting guy. Given his swingy nature, lots of people are going to pay attention to what he is saying," McKenna said.
Since 2010, many formerly moderate Republicans have shifted far to the right on energy and climate positions, in part to avoid attacks from groups such as Americans for Prosperity ahead of reelection campaigns. But although Alexander is up for reelection next year, he is not backing down from his long-held energy positions. The former Tennessee governor is not facing a primary challenger and is expected to maintain a comfortable lead over Democratic challenger Larry Crim.
Five years ago, Alexander gave a similar energy speech at Oak Ridge, laying out seven "grand challenges" on energy, including finding ways to promote plug-in electric vehicles, capture and use carbon emissions, help solar become cost-competitive, safely manage nuclear waste, make biofuels competitive with gasoline, make new buildings green buildings, and create energy from fusion. At the time, those goals were well in line with the views of the GOP's presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Alexander's speech on Wednesday offered a progress report on those goals—and proposed a plan for a Republican energy future.
Alexander directly acknowledged climate change and the need to reduce carbon pollution. "While the United States has made more gains in reducing the use of carbon than any other industrial country, the National Academies of the U.S. and 12 other countries have warned that human activity has contributed significantly to climate change and global warming," he said.
He presented "four grand principles" to "help the United States end an obsession with taxpayer subsidies and strategies for expensive energy and instead focus on doubling research and allowing marketplace solutions to create an abundance of clean, cheap, reliable energy."
His four principles are: cheaper, not more expensive energy; clean, not just renewable energy; research and development, not government mandates; and a free market, not government, picking winners and losers.
More specifically, he praised the U.S. boom in development of natural gas, a source of electricity that produces half the carbon pollution of coal. While acknowledging the role renewable-energy sources such as solar play in the nation's energy mix, he also pushed for development of low-carbon electricity sources such as nuclear and hydropower. He praised the work done by the Energy Department lab ARPA-E, which researches high-risk, high-reward breakthrough clean-energy technologies—a move that comes on the heels of a GOP campaign railing against President Obama for the bankruptcy of the solar company Solyndra, which took $500 million in an Energy Department loan guarantee.
Alexander's message wasn't all along green lines. He criticized President Obama's effort to pass a cap-and-trade climate-change bill—although his criticisms were of the policy mechanism, not the goal of reducing carbon. He called for an end to government subsidies on wind energy, a policy he's long opposed. The proposals don't line up exactly with President Obama's green agenda, but with their clear focus on low-carbon energy, they are a far cry from the stance of many in the GOP.
"I've been fascinated with the progress we've made on the seven grand challenges I suggested five years ago," Alexander said. "Perhaps by focusing on these four principles, we can capitalize on this progress toward cheap, clean, reliable energy."
Republicans say that a voice like Alexander's will have serious heft as the GOP reckons with its energy and climate future.
"Lamar is a strong and credible voice for Republicans on energy issues," said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. "He has standing to make the case."
This article appears in the May 30, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.