Wanted: Republicans for Responsible Oil Policy

John Boehner

12:18 p.m. | Updated
When President Obama announced the release of oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve today, the usual suspects weighed in all around.

Iran and other oil exporters, along with the American Petroleum Institute, criticized the move.

Joe Romm, who’s directly on his game on such issues, referred readers to his 2008 congressional testimony laying out the logic for such releases if they’re coupled with conservation measures. His statement before a House subcommittee (when gas stations ran short of the number 4) is relevant now:

[S]elling a relatively modest amount of crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve while promoting oil efficiency could pop the speculative oil price bubble and lower prices

House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, unsurprisingly, had a markedly different reaction, saying that Obama was “using a national security instrument to address his domestic political problems.” His statement also reminds voters of the Republican approach to energy, which boils down to one word — more — and is only slightly more fleshed out on a Facebook page called the “American Energy Initiative.”

The same attitude is echoed by the most vocal cheerleader for fossil fuels in the Senate, James M. Inhofe, the Republican of Oklahoma, who devoted a long speech earlier this year to the untapped riches beneath American soil, with nary a word about conservation. (As I wrote at the time, aren’t conservatives supposed to be into conserving things?)

In the end, as long as the Republican Party remains hostage to factions holding to such fossilized notions, my guess is it will be increasingly marginalized, given the reality that Americans of both parties, outside a small bubble, are very enthusiastic about the responsibility, even the patriotic duty, to use a great gift — oil — more thriftily. (Let’s set aside the tougher coal question for another day.)

Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009In a detailed survey of American attitudes on global warming and related issues, participants whose views on climate diverged sharply — from alarmed to doubtful — largely supported a substantial strengthening of vehicle fuel efficiency, even at a substantial cost. They were asked: “How much do you support or oppose the following policies: Require automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of cars, trucks, and SUVs to 45 mpg, even if it means a new vehicle would cost up to $1,000 more to buy.”*

This is shown quite vividly in the graph above, from the invaluable ongoing “Six Americas” study of attitudes on global warming science and policy, led by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University. The question was whether respondents would support a very high standard for vehicle fuel efficiency even if it raised the cost of cars and trucks.

The bubbles, which you’ve seen here before, represent the size of segments of society that have fairly well defined attitudes on science pointing to a rising human influence on the climate. The labels clearly convey who’s who.

Even those dismissive of global warming science are close to neutral on sharply raising vehicle performance. Just to be clear, this is from the 2009 survey. Anthony Leiserowitz, the lead Yale researcher on the project, told me today that they haven’t asked that question in more recent surveys (unfortunately, to my mind). The “dismissive” bubble is substantially larger now. My guess is attitudes on mileage standards have not changed, given the persistence of high gas prices. (It’s worth noting that the survey also shows universal support for increased research on renewable energy alternatives.)

I asked Leiserowitz to weigh in a bit more on the meaning of this graph and related findings, and the message for politicians:

This is in line with broad, bipartisan support for clean energy policies. For example, as of just a couple weeks ago, 9 out of 10 of Americans said developing sources of clean energy should be a priority for the president and Congress including 85% of Republicans, 89% of Independents, and 97% of Democrats.

Likewise, more than 8 out of 10 of Americans support funding more research for renewable energy – including 81% of Republicans and Independents, and 90% of Democrats.

When was the last time you saw this kind of public consensus, across party lines?

There’s an old saying that “there are many roads to Damascus.” In this case, we see that very diverse Americans all support the same energy policies (clean sources, energy efficiency, doing more with less), albeit for different reasons.

The “Alarmed” and “Concerned” support these policies because they care about climate change and the other environmental and health impacts of our continuing dependence on fossil fuels.

The “Doubtful” and “Dismissive”, however, don’t believe in human-caused global warming, yet they support these policies because they resonate with their own deeply held values – including freedom, self-reliance, security, and economic opportunity.

Note that the reason the IEA and the US decided to release oil from the strategic reserves is because OPEC decided not to increase production, despite the Libya crisis. I suspect they’re perfectly happy with high energy prices, thank you very much, more profit for them. I also suspect that nobody in the United States — liberals or conservatives — likes being subject to the whims of the OPEC countries.

This is ultimately the art of politics — developing policies that can attract “strange bedfellows” – support from diverse groups, with different values and different agendas, who nonetheless see that they each, and we all, can benefit from a new direction.

Right now, Americans appear almost unanimous in their desire to move towards a clean energy future. How that plays out in particular places or regarding particular energy technologies (e.g., nuclear) gets more complicated, but nearly everyone seems to agree that it’s time to start the transition to a new energy system.

Leiserowitz here directly echoes a longstanding refrain of the University of Colorado policy analyst Roger A. Pielke, Jr. — that politics is the art of getting people who think differently to act alike.

I know that most members of Republicans for Environmental Protection don’t need to absorb what Leiserowitz is saying. Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist who hates talk of global warming alarm but has long called for a big rise in the gas tax (with compensating shifts in other taxes), might not need to read it. But there are clearly plenty of Republicans, particularly those running for president, who would do well to listen to Leiserowitz.

On the flip side, all of this illustrates why traditional environmental campaigners might reconsider their longstanding strategy of fighting battles from the edges instead of convening with the “strange bedfellows” described by Leiserowitz to find ways to move forward. This can be done in a way that still (appropriately) marginalizes those seeking no shift in energy policies and norms.

I think Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, had it right when he wrote this spring that he had become a “climate pragmatist,” adding:

Meet people where they are. Many of my conservative friends are deeply suspicious of climate change, and they hate carbon taxes and cap and trade. They’re not interested in adapting to a supposedly hypothetical future. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

But these same friends embrace ideas like U.S. energy independence, reducing foreign oil imports, promoting economic growth, protecting our families from harm and improving the U.S. balance of trade. And many of these same friends, while skeptical about climate change, see the wisdom in protecting rain forests and the world’s biodiversity.

There’s a message in all of this for the president, as well, given how it helps reinforce the notion that there is a great opportunity for a leader, either in office or aspiring to get there, to articulate how a sustained energy quest is the new American imperative.

With that in mind, I’ll end by reprising some lines from a post last February that are still germane and deserve a bit more airing:

[T]he Republican Party has utterly failed to articulate any kind of energy policy despite clear signals that business as usual produces building risks of instability (climatic, economic, strategic) in this century. Review this piece for more:

Stop Energy Poverty. Great slogan. How?

The Republicans are little different on science and innovation, despite transitory nods to the need for a sustained push in this arena, including a recent column from George Will, as discussed here:

“‘Rev the Scientific Engine.’ Great. How?”

To my mind, President Obama, despite dodging the issue in his State of the Union message, still has a chance this year to marginalize polarizing voices and build a new route forward on energy and climate. Let’s hope he takes the chance.

[June 24, 12:18 p.m. | Updated *Leiserowitz alerted me today that the image I used was an older version of the graph. A newer version has corrected the size of the circles (the smaller ones are somewhat larger. I’ll be substituting the correct version when I get a copy.]

Leave a Reply