When then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were duking it out for the White House in 2008, they disagreed on many things, but the coming of the green revolution wasn't one of them.
If elected, Obama said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that summer, "I'll invest in renewable energies like wind power, solar power, and the next generation of homegrown biofuels. That's how America is going to free itself from our dependence on foreign oil — not through short-term gimmicks, but through a real, long-term commitment to transform our energy sector."
McCain sounded a similar note in Houston.
"To make the great turn away from carbon-emitting fuels, we will need all the inventive genius of which America is capable," he said that June. "We will need an economy strong enough to support our nation's great shift toward clean energy."
A convergence of concerns — about the economy, national security, the environment — had created a broad, politically diverse constituency for renewable energy — and, by extension, the first really formidable alliance in Washington positioned to address global warming. The moment looked ripe for Congress to pass comprehensive legislation aimed at cutting carbon emissions.
But the extraordinary political coalition that seemed poised to confront the challenge of climate change has since been fractured, in large part by an old nemesis: fossil fuels. Fracking has produced a glut of oil and natural gas that has made some of the top concerns of the 2008 campaign less pressing — or at least appear that way — and has sapped the will on the Hill to even discuss an issue that not long ago was at the top of the agenda.
THE RISE OF THE COALITION
During the '08 campaign, the United States was importing nearly 60 percent of its oil from foreign countries — not all of them especially stable or friendly. Gasoline cost more than $4 a gallon at the pump. The nation's dependence on fossil fuels was increasingly viewed as an economic liability and a national security concern in addition to an environmental problem. And the environmental implications were themselves of growing concern to Americans, with 66 percent of respondents telling Gallup back then that they worried "a great deal" or "a fair amount" about global warming — a number that had been rising steadily over the past few years.
The "green economy," meanwhile, offered the prospect of millions of new jobs, energy independence, and, eventually, cheap power. Talk of "clean coal" was raising hopes in the increasingly desperate company towns of West Virginia and Kentucky.
Suddenly, working to combat climate change wasn't just for tree-huggers anymore.
"You found this coalition of energy-security folks and environmental folks who were banding together. I think it was a forceful coalition," says Frank Verrastro, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
So forceful that even Sarah Palin — not yet McCain's "drill, baby, drill"-chanting running mate — treated the move toward renewable energy as inevitable. In a press release issued in August 2008, the Alaska governor responded to Obama's energy plan by praising his call to lease more of the National Petroleum Reserve and to finish building the Alaska natural-gas pipeline, saying, "This is a tool that must be on the table to buy us time until our long-term energy plans can be put into place."
Recalls Verrastro: "The thinking then was, if you use this moment in time to be transformative, we could reduce our oil imports, get a new economy, use green technology to be the next wave of the dot-coms, and at the same time improve the environment; that's a win-win-win all around."
The solution to Al Gore's "inconvenient truth" was starting to look pretty politically convenient.
FROM BUST TO BOOM
Then, amid a recession that followed an epic financial meltdown that left widespread unemployment and foreclosures in its wake, the United States improbably found itself in the middle of a domestic energy boom. And two of the three legs of the political coalition for climate-change action — national security and economic necessity — snapped off.
This boom was born largely of technology, the one-two punch of horizontal drilling and fracking that enabled producers to tap into hard-rock shale formations that had, until then, trapped vast oil and natural-gas reserves.
Today the United States is producing more oil than it has since 1995 and more natural gas than at any other time in the nation's history. It is on track this year to become the biggest natural-gas producer in the world, and to import just 28 percent of its oil. By 2015, the U.S. is expected to take over the top oil-producing spot from Saudi Arabia.
The impact has been felt both at home and abroad. U.S. drivers paid on average $3.49 per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline last year, the lowest prices since 2010, according to AAA. Although prices at the pump in the United States are not directly tied to the nation's energy production, experts say America's oil boom has helped stabilize domestic costs by helping to keep global oil prices in check — and has perhaps even helped avert disaster.
"Had it not been for the extraordinary increase in U.S. oil production since 2008, everything else being equal, we'd be talking about an oil crisis right now," says Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS and author of The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. He says the American oil boom has helped make up for the lack of production in other places such as Libya, which have been rocked by political unrest. Yergin adds that the surge in fuel production also enabled Obama to coordinate oil sanctions on Iran. "We have added 2.7 billion barrels a day of oil since 2008. The Iranian sanctions wouldn't have worked without that oil," he says.
Electricity prices are also at their lowest levels since 2009, almost entirely due to cheap natural-gas. And Yergin's firm recently released a report finding that the supply chain for the shale-oil and natural-gas boom is supporting 2.1 million U.S. jobs. There's even something for environmentalists to like: Natural gas emits 50 percent less carbon than coal, and tapping the nation's vast reserves has helped lower U.S. emissions to levels not seen in decades.
Yet all this good news has been terrible news for political unity — and potential action — on climate change.
"In arguments many people have made — 'You may care about carbon, but I care about dollars for terrorists or U.S. exposure to oil price shocks' — the latter two members of the coalition are gone," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advised McCain on policy issues during his presidential campaign. "Given the domestic energy production, the money is coming here and not going to terrorists, and exposure to oil price shocks are less."
Verrastro, who recently cowrote a book looking at these issues with Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners, concurs. "All of a sudden we have all this low-priced natural gas that was creating jobs — more so than the green stimulus," Verrastro says. "Then we found all this oil. The pressure came off. There was no reason to stick together on economic security and environmental grounds, as they were now heading in opposite directions."
SHIFTING POLITICAL WINDS
All of this has led to a point where President Obama, perhaps the green economy's top champion, now touts the nation's fossil-fuel boom. "When I travel, what's striking to me is people around the world think we've got a really good hand," he said in November to The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. "They say America is poised to change our geopolitics entirely because of the advances we've made in oil production and natural-gas production. It means manufacturing here is much more attractive than it used to be. That's a huge competitive advantage."
And John McCain, who sponsored climate bills in 2003 and 2005, doesn't talk about climate change anymore. In fact, hardly any congressional Republicans talk about climate change, and many who do express doubt that human activity is responsible for it, or even that it is happening at all. The few Democrats who discuss it regularly — led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman of California, who is retiring at the end of this session — are mostly preaching to the choir.
"I see the Congress so caught up in budget reconciliation, sequestration, debt limits, continuing resolutions, it's just simply not on the radar," McCain said in an interview. He noted that both the nation's move toward energy independence and the poor economy have helped cut Capitol Hill's appetite for addressing global warming.
A reduced dependence on foreign oil "probably has something to do with it," McCain added. "I also think we hit an economic downturn, and that shifted a lot of priorities, and it gave a much higher importance to the cost of energy and the cost of developing alternative energy."
Environmental groups have also played a role in turning the conversation on the Hill. Organizations that once focused almost entirely on pressing for a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy now maintain that renewables are growing at record speed and that efforts to undo state renewable-energy standards have failed, and they have turned their attention to fighting to ensure that fracking is done safely. "Environmentalists may be more concerned now about fracking and shutting down coal," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy.
All of these factors have helped moved renewables from the main stage to the side stage — and climate change offstage entirely.
"What has happened more recently is there is not such the urgency on the climate-change side. And there is this euphoria — justifiable euphoria — in our ability to produce more oil and gas," says former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., whose home state is at the forefront of America's booming oil industry. "It persuades some people to believe, 'OK, we're producing more and using less, our imports are down, so game, set, match, it's over.' "
"I worry a little bit that there is this notion, 'Boy, we're just awash in oil and gas, so that's it. We don't need to do anything more.' That's exactly the wrong thing," adds Dorgan, who now cochairs the Bipartisan Policy Center's Energy Project.
Dorgan isn't the only one who's worried.
"Unfortunately, our country — the American population and policymakers — have been raised on a steady diet of 'we need to end our dependence on foreign oil' since the Nixon administration," says Robbie Diamond, founder and president of Securing America's Future Energy, an energy-security think tank devoted to weaning the U.S. off oil, no matter where it comes from. "The production we've seen is fabulous. It's important for the country. It's great from a jobs perspective and balance of payments. But does it solve our national security and economic security risks? The answer there is, absolutely not."
Diamond and other experts note that the oil market is still global and that U.S. domestic production can only affect it so much. It's just a matter of time until Mideast conflict or something else causes a major disruption that sends oil prices skyrocketing, he says. He notes that global spare capacity was near a record low of 1.5 million barrels this summer. "You're one Libya away from $115 [a barrel] oil," Diamond says. "Believe me, that's when they will start talking: 'Hmm, I thought we were producing all that oil, and doesn't it make a difference?' That's the lost story, and that's the counterintuitive story."
Those who work daily in the national security world say oil prices are the least of their fears.
"The security threats stemming from climate change are massive," says Mike Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project and a former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Breen recalls the U.S. military's top officer in the Pacific region, which includes North Korea, saying last March that the biggest threat to the region was climate change, because rising sea levels and extreme weather such as heat waves are likely to exacerbate tensions in already unstable areas. He says not enough lawmakers are talking about the problem.
"The security community knows it's happening, and the political dialogue hasn't caught up," Breen says.
Indeed, if anything, the political dialogue on climate change has regressed. Today's voters — and the lawmakers who represent them in Washington — are focused on the benefits of the oil and gas boom, and on local environmental concerns, not on the effects of global warming, which often seem intangible, buried in scientific reports most people don't read, or far away, like islands of the South Pacific. To be sure, Superstorm Sandy and other extreme-weather events in the United States have at times refocused the public's attention, but those moments have been fleeting, and so far they haven't moved the needle toward action on Capitol Hill.
"Now, what [the public] sees are cheaper energy prices, and it just swings it against anything on the climate front," Holtz-Eakin says. "They don't have a sense that there is a climate issue. It's just something people babble about in The New York Times."
BACK TO THE FUTURE?
In the wake of the coalition's unraveling, Obama has been stepping up — but in a political environment that is now openly hostile to his efforts.
He is moving forward unilaterally to regulate carbon emissions from the nation's power plants — a decision that isn't making any side especially happy. Republicans and coal-state Democrats are blasting him for supposedly killing the coal industry and the jobs that go along with it, while the loudest remaining voices on global warming warn that the president's proposed rules won't do nearly enough.
"President Obama's Climate Action Plan is an important step toward curbing carbon emissions," Whitehouse said in a statement to National Journal. But "Congress must act and pass a carbon fee that places the cost of climate change where it belongs — on large carbon polluters. Pricing carbon pollution will make the market more efficient and generate revenue to return to the American people."
But what exactly would it take to get Congress to act?
Former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., said the realization that we're not shielded from oil-price spikes combined with a stronger economy will help revive the topic politically.
"We're going to be very disappointed with what [the energy boom] means for us at the pump. It's going to mean nothing," says Inglis, who is now executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative. "The second long-term trend is, as the Great Recession gives way to a great recovery, then the ability to think in time horizons longer than this month's mortgage payment and this month's paycheck will give us the ability to focus on things like climate change."
The second part of that equation may already be falling into place: A Gallup Poll last April suggested that Americans' concerns about global warming were increasing again, after hitting 10-year lows in 2010 and 2011.
Would McCain ever lead again on the issue?
"Sure, any time — I would," McCain says. "We've got to show people that it makes sense fiscally. In other words, don't increase taxes, and you'd find the most efficient way to address the issue without raising people's cost of energy."
If McCain does, says Holtz-Eakin, he's going to need "¦ a coalition.
"There will be no successful up-or-down vote on climate policy in the U.S. Congress," he says. "We've seen people try this, and it just doesn't happen. That means carbon policy must be tied in with something else."