The success of the Tea party has been a constant focus of the media leading up to and in the wake of November’s election. The newly elected cohort of Tea Party-backed candidates is making its way to Washington, bringing a cause for joy among some Americans and despair for others. There may only be 39 new Tea Party candidates heading to Capitol Hill, which is a relatively small number given the size of Congress, but don’t let the numbers fool you. In the short amount of time since the election, Tea Party candidates have shown considerable influence within the Republican Party. Many uncertainties remain over the direction of public policy during the next term, but one thing is for certain, the small but feisty Tea Party minority cannot be ignored.

Several newly elected Senator’s owe their success to a Tea Party endorsement. An ABC article notes how this block consisting of newcomers Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey, and Ron Johnson as well as veteran Jim DeMint could be an ultraconservative force pushing against the moderate Republican leadership. Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already caved to Tea Party pressure and supported an earmark ban, despite previously defending the practice. This could be the first of many instances where the Tea Party prevails over Republican leadership. In the House of Representatives, freshman members Kristi Noem and Tim Scott, both of whom received Tea Party backing, have been given leadership posts in the new Boehner- led majority.

Where does energy policy fit into this new establishment?  Senator McConnell and President Obama have already indicated that energy is an issue where both sides might be able to achieve compromise. But where does the Tea Party stand on energy issues? At first glance, the rise of the Tea Party presents a gloomy picture for environmentalists; however, energy policy may be one of the few issues that politicians with starkly different ideologies will be able to achieve progress.

It is safe to say that cap and trade has met its demise, at least for the foreseeable future. In the previous Congress, Republican members, then in the minority, were able to unite and kill a carbon tax policy. Now, newly elected Tea Party candidates are also united in their opposition. The “Contract from America” is a 10 point pledge created by Tea Party groups and signed by many new members of Congress that spells out their legislative goals for the upcoming year. It includes well known promises to protect the Constitution and repeal government run healthcare. Number two on the short list is to “reject Cap and Trade.” End of story.

What is perhaps more troubling to environmentalists is the widespread climate skepticism among the Tea Party movement. According to a NY Times CBS October poll, only 14% of tea party supporters believe that global warming is having an effect now, compared to 42% of the rest of the public. The poll also found that 22% of the general public believes that global warming would have no serious affect all compared with 52% of Tea Party supporters.

Similarly, many prominent Tea Party backed candidates have expressed doubt over the validity of  the scientific data supporting the climate change theory. Senators- elect Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have both questioned climate science and Ron Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that climate change can be attributed to sun spot activity. Two of the loudest climate deniers in the Senate are Jim DeMint, an unofficial leader of the Tea Party movement, and James Inhofe who has also received Tea Party endorsement. In the House, Darrell Issa, who will likely chair the Oversight and Government Reform Committee during the next Congress, has pledged to make an investigation of the “Climategate” scandal a top priority. This investigation, if carried out, would divert attention away from policy issues that actually deserve it.

With such polarizing views, the environmental agenda over the next two years could easily be bogged down in a fruitless debate over the validity of the scientific of climate change. Tea Partiers’ stance on the merits of climate change may be frustrating to some, but it is a reality. A reality that members of Congress, the Obama administration, and the American public must accept if we are to move forward towards a new energy policy.  Members from both sides of the aisle must see past their differences to work towards something everyone can agree on: America’s need for energy independence.

The good news is that there is some light at the end of the Tea Party climate tunnel. The Contract From America, in its eighth provision, pledges to pass an “all of the above” energy policy:

“Authorize the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources from unstable countries and reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation, lowering prices and creating competition and jobs”

Clearly, the Tea Party recognizes that America is in desperate need of a new, comprehensive energy policy, unfortunately their top priority seems to be exploring oil and coal reserves in order to achieve energy independence rather than investing in clean energy technology. Still, recognizing energy as a top policy priority is a step in the right direction.

Tea Party backed candidates have said their main concerns when they arrive in Washington will be to reduce the national debt, balance the budget, and create jobs. In a paper written by researchers from the American Enterprise Institute, the Breakthrough Institute and the Brookings Institution entitled “Post-Partisan Power,” the authors spell out a plan for increasing energy investment and stimulating innovation without adding to the national debt. Because the national debt and budget concerns are such a pivotal issue for the Tea Party, a solution like this could be a starting point for discussion.

Energy sources like solar and wind have not taken hold in America because fossil fuels remain far cheaper. In order for renewable energy sources to have widespread use, their cost must significantly decline. Innovation will be the key in achieving necessary cost reductions. Many Americans, fed up with the economic policies of the Obama administration, rallied behind the Tea Party because of their limited government and anti-spending platform, so convincing these new members of Congress, who were elected on a wave of anti-government sentiment, that government driven investment (i.e spending) is a necessity for energy independence will be a tough sell. However, as the Post-Partisan Power authors point out, innovation spurs economic growth, which in the long run can help reduce the budget deficit. The report also spells outlines several examples showing the history of government investment in innovation:

“Throughout American history, strategic government investments in areas like education, technology, infrastructure, and energy catalyzed the entrepreneurship that has paved the way for so many of the great American technological and economic successes of the 20th century. In the words of conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, the American story is one of ‘limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth.

Begun under Republican President Herbert Hoover and expanded under Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America begins an era of large-scale investment in hydroelectric dams, providing clean, cheap electricity to power economic development in the Southeast and American West.

Facing aggressive Japanese competition, Republican President Ronald Reagan’s Defense Department finances the creation of SEMATECH a public-private partnership to restore U.S leadership in the global semiconductor industry.”

The Department of Defense, which receives the largest portion of the government’s R&D budget, has been particularly instrumental in the development of new technologies. In fact, you are using one of these innovations right now: the Internet. Government investment in innovation is nothing new, nor should it be controversial. A Gallup poll indicates that 77% of Americans are in favor of the government increasing support for renewable energy sources. With public support for investment in renewable sources and the recent events in the Gulf, solely focusing on expanding oil and natural gas reserves will no longer be a politically viable energy stance. The Obama administration and Republicans in Congress have indicated that passing energy legislation will be a priority, but both sides must be willing to compromise.

In the wake of this month’s elections, it would be easy to despair over the future of energy and environmental policy, but all is not lost. The debate over energy must be re-framed. Cap and trade is out. In light of the BP spill, “drill, baby, drill” is not an option either. America needs an energy policy that does not discount the importance of using sources like coal and oil, but we must gradually move away from these fossil fuels and towards renewable sources. Energy is national security issue. Energy is an economic issue. If politicians started framing the issue as such, rather than an environmental issue, devising a comprehensive policy would not only be something that could be achieved in a bipartisan manner, but must be achieved.

Natalie Relich is a Contributor with Americans for Energy Leadership (AEL).  The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AEL.

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5 Responses to “What the Tea Party Means for National Energy Policy”

  1. Alex Trembath says:

    The trouble, of course, if that though McConnell has at times appeared open to cooperation on issues like energy, at other times he has expressed that bringing down the Obama administration is his number one priority. This is the problem when the contest of politics overrides a party’s desire to craft good legislation. Critics on the left like Paul Krugman will say that Americans do not care about process, so Democrats should exhibit the same closed-door attitude as Republicans have in their obstructionism over the past two years. However, IMO, a decades-long effort like that which will be required for energy will also require two parties willing to share ideas–and share the stage. I fully endorse your strategy of reframing the debate, but even that is a tricky needle to thread. If no reform is possible until after 2012, we’ll have the increasingly toxic politics in Congress to blame this time around, more so than the intractability of cap-and-trade or other specific energy policies.

  2. Ron Wong says:

    An interesting perspective on how our political process could impact our energy policy. I would like to know your view on how our political process compares to our Chinese competitor to achieve our respective energy goals. As you suggest in your article, our country needs to integrate our energy and economic policies. It seems like the Chinese government is taking this approach and is now ahead of us in achieving a leadership in clean energy.

    Ron Wong, Chairman
    Lakefront Capital, LLC

  3. Natalie Relich says:

    There are many differences between America and China, our political systems perhaps being the most glaring. America’s political system was designed to be slow in order to encourage debate and deliberation. This debate of course, particularly in the Senate, can create a hyper partisan environment where neither party is willing to compromise. The Chinese political system, having only one party, does not share this problem. The lack of competition gives the Chinese Communist Party the ability to implement policies quickly, although there are certainly other problems associated with having a one- party system.

    In terms of energy, our two- party system, like it has on so many other issues, has fostered an “us vs. them” mentality. In China, the CCP does not have any opposition so they have been able to act swiftly on energy issues and are now surging ahead of America. Most Americans politicians see the link between energy, economy and security, but are unable to come up with a plan that is suitable to all sides. It would definitely benefit our government to take cues from the Chinese and make progress on this issue sooner rather than later.

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  5. Charlie says:

    One of my wife’s relatives, who always vote GOP, and is now enamored with the Tea Party, assured me that there is more oil than we can ever use in reasonably easy access. According to him, “peak oil” is a politically motivated myth created by a conspiracy involving far left wing communist liberals, the oil companies, and the terrorist Arab Muslim nations.

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