At first blush, Republican Trent Lott, the loquacious former Senate majority leader from Mississippi, and Democrat Byron Dorgan, the quiet and precise former senator from North Dakota, don’t have much in common. But they have joined forces to run the Strategic Energy Policy Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, an influential group that’s helped to shape federal policy on both energy and health care—and that has the ear of the White House and congressional leaders. Lott and Dorgan are writing a set of energy-policy recommendations, to be released in January, designed for passage in the gridlocked upper chamber. There’s reason to think that Congress and the White House will take note: Dorgan is rumored to be on President Obama’s short list to be Energy secretary, and Lott has experience with wrangling policy through the Senate. Edited excerpts of their interview with National Journal follow.
NJ When the two of you served in the Senate, there was lots of bipartisan agreement on energy—with major legislation passed in 2005 and 2007. But energy policy became such a partisan issue. How can anything get done now?
DORGAN There has to be a reset on the discussion about energy. Coming out of the campaigns, there was a lot of rhetoric about energy—not very much of it constructive. Do we need more production of oil and gas? The answer is yes. Do we need more efficiency and need much more investment in innovation? The answer is also yes. There’s a greater possibility now to pass energy legislation. The world has changed. There are tremendous new oil and gas discoveries, but the economy has reduced its use of energy.
LOTT Look, I come from a basic Republican point of view. I want to produce more of everything. Oil and gas and hydro and nuclear. I’m a little more leery of some of the conservation and alternative fuels. But a long time ago, I adopted the slogan Obama has taken on: All of the above. I winterized my own home. I’m using geothermal. I did some of the energy-efficiency stuff, and it made a huge difference. It cut the utility bill in my old house by a third.
NJ So does that mean you’re a convert on conservation and energy efficiency?
LOTT I’m not a convert, but I drive a Mini Cooper. I don’t drive an electric vehicle yet.
DORGAN You’re a convert!
LOTT While both sides appear to be very far apart, if you analyze it, they’re really not.
NJ Do members of Congress agree with that?
DORGAN If I thought this was a fool’s errand, I wouldn’t be interested in it.
NJ What impact did the election have on the chance for energy reform?
LOTT Members of Congress, I think, I hope, got the message that there is a feeling by the people that gridlock and total partisanship is not good for the country. Energy is a part of getting Congress to begin to produce something that the people are pleased with.
NJ How does climate change come into the picture, especially for Republicans?
LOTT Why do we have to debate what is or isn’t? Or what’s the science? Are we doing some things that are not helping the environment and the atmosphere? How can we deny that? So quit arguing what the science might show and start doing what you know would be helpful and make a difference.
DORGAN The threat of climate change is what drives more diverse sources of fuel for transportation. It’s what drives the issue of efficiency and innovation. Without having to describe at great length what climate change is, the shadow of climate change hangs over everything. And the unbelievable tropical storm Sandy has opened some eyes to say, “You can’t come to an intersection about energy without having a sign that says environment.”
LOTT We learned that lesson before [Sandy’s victims] did. We had a thing called Hurricane Katrina that was a lot worse. And they’re not getting weaker as the years go by. They’re getting stronger.
NJ What, specifically, does the president need to do?
DORGAN He needs to make it a priority. We have unbelievable energy news, with huge new development of oil and gas. It’s exactly the right time to construct a more coherent energy policy. It’s one thing to have to do it in a crisis; it’s another to do it when you have an opportunity. Energy can be a signature achievement for this president and this Congress.
LOTT He needs to do it without throwing out there things that are controversial at the gate. Don’t be putting out markers saying, “We need this, that, or the other.” Say, “We need a national energy policy for the good of the country, and I need to work with our congressional leaders.” Do that.
This article appeared in print as "Lit Up."