GOP Tiptoes Toward Climate Plans as Ocasio-Cortez Turns Up Heat

(Bloomberg) -- Texas Senator John Cornyn, who once voted against a measure that said climate change was man-made, is now helping fellow Republicans craft legislation to combat global warming through “energy innovation.”

“Coming up with lower emissions is a good thing,” Cornyn said in an interview.

GOP Tiptoes Toward Climate Plans as Ocasio-Cortez Turns Up Heat

He’s not alone. With the exception of President Donald Trump, Republicans have largely gone from ignoring or expressing doubt about climate change to acknowledging the scientific consensus in the face of growing public alarm over deadly storms and wildfires, and pressure to come up with an alternative to progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal.”

That’s forced them to craft a policy response that doesn’t alienate supporters in the fossil-fuel industry or contradict their long-standing emphasis on increasing energy production.

Some of those proposals may get an airing on Thursday when Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from oil-rich Alaska, convenes a hearing on “potential solutions to help address global climate change.”

“There is a remarkable shift going on,” said Alex Flint, the executive director of Alliance for Market Solutions, a conservative group that favors a tax on carbon to reduce emissions of the planet-warming gas. “There is a sincere effort by several Republicans to develop policy proposals to address climate change.”

Among the ideas under discussion are clean-energy mandates and tax credits that promote the use of alternative power sources as well as spending on new energy technology and electric vehicles -- ideas that were shunned by the party just a few years ago.

GOP Tiptoes Toward Climate Plans as Ocasio-Cortez Turns Up Heat

“It’s up to Republicans to say what we are for,” said Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who recently took to the Senate floor to propose a New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy -- a nod to the massive mobilization during World War II to build an atomic bomb. “Instead of ending a war, the goal of this New Manhattan Project will be to minimize the disruption on our lives and economies caused by climate change.”

He proposes spending $6 billion a year on energy research and scoring huge advancements in nuclear power technology, electric vehicles and their batteries, as well as solar power, natural gas and carbon capture.

And Alexander, who serves as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he believed “almost all of it” could be achieved through Congress’s regular spending bill process, such as through boosting funding for the Energy Department.

“We are moving ahead,” Alexander said in an interview.

Other Republicans are exploring mandates that require states to produce a certain percentage of electricity from sources such as renewables and nuclear power. In the case of one so-called clean energy standard being crafted as part of a larger package by West Virginia Representative David McKinley, carbon capture technologies would count as well.

Though largely unproven on an industrial scale, carbon capture aims to render coal climate-friendly by intercepting carbon dioxide emissions.

GOP Tiptoes Toward Climate Plans as Ocasio-Cortez Turns Up Heat

“We’ve had an approach here in Washington for too long: Pay penalties first and then innovate later,” McKinley, a staunch advocate of his home state’s coal industry, said in an interview. “Why don’t we do the reverse? Innovate first and then once we do the innovation then we can set standards that are achievable.”

Murkowski, who’s long acknowledged climate change, said a clean energy standard is something she might back. “I’m open to a discussion about what that could look like,” she said in an interview.

Polling Results

Republicans’ new strategy is buttressed by polling and focus group research showing voters respond well when energy and environmental plans center on innovation.

“The debate over the Green New Deal has demonstrated there is a growing appetite to address climate change,” said Christopher Guith, acting president of the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. But what’s needed is a better approach that harnesses “America’s energy advantage and continued environmental progress without threatening economic growth,” he said.

The institute released polling results Thursday that Guith said prove the overwhelming majority of Americans support an “energy agenda that drives innovation, lowers emissions and fosters economic growth.” According to a chamber-commissioned telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters nationwide, 73 percent support a “cleaner, stronger” approach to energy that uses more American energy supplies and continues environmental progress. The survey found that nearly 4 out of 5 likely voters -- 79 percent -- agree the best way to address climate change is through investments into innovation and technology.

‘Political Peril’

Critics of the Republican climate measures question their sincerity and say they don’t go nearly far enough.

“Republicans are under pressure because the underlying concern is rising across the political spectrum,” said David Doniger, a senior official at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Maybe now they see political peril in blowing the problem off.”

It’s not an easy transition for the party that not long ago fired up supporters with chants of “drill, baby drill.” One solution to the conundrum is embracing energy innovation -- a broad term that’s come to encompass increasing research and development that critics have said amounts to a delaying tactic.

GOP Tiptoes Toward Climate Plans as Ocasio-Cortez Turns Up Heat

The innovation bill being crafted by Cornyn looks to spur the development of new technologies to capture carbon emitted when natural gas is used to generate electricity.

Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally, last week unveiled the “Green Real Deal” in contrast to New York’s Ocasio-Cortez and her “Green New Deal.”

It’s a climate resolution that calls for reducing carbon dioxide emissions through increased spending on “next generation” low-emission energy technologies including carbon capture, renewables and nuclear power.

‘Crushing Regulations’

“Unilaterally disarming the American economy through crushing regulations will empower Washington but few others,” Gaetz said. “Our rise in global leadership on climate must be fueled by American innovators.”

“Are the politics influencing this? Certainly,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Florida Republican representative who backed a carbon tax but lost his re-election campaign last year. “Many Republicans probably realize the path back to the majority in the House means having a serious answer on climate change.”

For New York Republican Representative Tom Reed, the answers lies within a tweak to the tax code. The member of the House tax writing committee said he plans to introduce legislation that would provide new “technology-neutral” tax credits that reward new energy sources and energy storage. Similar to a bill Reed introduced in late 2018, the value of the credits would scale down as an energy source’s share of generating production increases.

Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina who as a member of his state legislature helped craft policies that aided the booming solar industry, said he was eyeing a measure that could help advance solar power nationally. One way it might do that is by spurring advancements in energy storage -- a technology capable of supplying grids with solar power, even when the sun isn’t shining.

And Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney said he’s working on a “climate plan” with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “We’re looking at all the options,” Romney said.

Environmentalists are largely taking a wait-and-see approach to the GOP efforts, awaiting more details and what, if anything Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would bring to the Senate floor for a vote.

McConnell, a Republican who hails from the coal-heavy state of Kentucky, said last month he believed humans were causing climate change.

“The question is how do you address it,” he said.

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