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Congress Looks to Energy Technology

Is a ‘New Manhattan Project’ the Solution?

While Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over many policies for addressing global warming and energy independence, a quiet bipartisan consensus appears to be developing on one solution that has the potential to affect both: the development of low-carbon energy technologies.

Even as the two parties have sparred daily in recent weeks over high gas prices and the economic costs of adopting cap-and-trade legislation to reduce global warming, a new and emerging political dynamic on energy technology has been on display.

Last month, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) made a speech, standing with House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), in which he called for a “new Manhattan Project” on clean energy, invoking the U.S. program that led to the development of the nuclear bomb, which in turn hastened the end of World War II.

“Instead of ending war, the goal would be clean energy independence so that we can deal with rising gasoline prices, electricity prices, clean air, climate change and national security,” Alexander said of the plan in a subsequent speech.

Days later — despite Republican attacks that a “Pelosi premium,” referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is keeping gasoline prices high — a bipartisan group of House Members including Reps. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) announced legislation to address gasoline prices by investing $1 billion in alternative energy research, funded in part by tapping the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Such examples suggest a legislative opening for clean energy technologies in the 111th Congress. As a model, Alexander cites the America COMPETES Act, a bipartisan educational research measure that sailed through Congress and was signed into law last year by President Bush.

Already, low-carbon technologies such as plug-in hybrid vehicles, wind, solar, advanced biofuels, and carbon capture and sequestration technology enjoy bipartisan support. But many Democrats and environmentalists are less enthused about other technologies often touted as “clean” by Republicans, including nuclear power and transportation fuels made from coal. They also want to make sure that action is taken now, rather than just waiting for future technologies to come to fruition.

Technology has been a recurring theme on the Senate floor this week, as Senators debate the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 3036). Critics say the bill, which would create a federal cap-and-trade program that affects nearly every sector of the economy, will have devastating economic consequences if enacted without a sufficient level of existing technology to reduce emissions. Under cap-and-trade, companies can either use pollution permits or trade them to less efficient firms, with the number of permits economy-wide slowly decreasing over time to reduce total emissions.

The runup to this week’s debate has crystallized GOP interest in clean energy as a solution, said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who despite his concerns about climate change has criticized the Lieberman-Warner bill as being too burdensome on the economy. “It’s making that issue come to the surface, because [technology is] one way to solve the problem,” Domenici said.

Alexander agreed, noting significant interest among Republican Senators in low-carbon technologies that “along the way would deal with climate change,” as opposed to policies intended solely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as cap-and-trade.

But Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who recently co-authored a book on clean energy and has emerged as one of its most aggressive Congressional proponents, says Republicans have it backward. Inslee said that adopting cap-and-trade will unleash a tsunami of clean energy investment.

“Capping carbon dioxide is the starter’s pistol to this race because once the markets and investment communities understand there’s a price on carbon, you will have leveled the playing field between old fossil fuel and dirty industries and the new industries,” he said in an interview last week.

Inslee says the venture capitalists he’s met with all have a similar message: “If you build a cap-and-trade system that creates demand for these products, we’ll finance them.” Given that, he said, Republicans should view climate change as an economic opportunity rather than a threat.

“There’s enormous capital waiting to flow into these industries,” Inslee said.

Mark Brownstein, managing director of business partnerships for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Air Program, agrees. “A cap-and-trade program is the mechanism that creates a price signal that entrepreneurs and innovators can respond to,” he said last week.

Ultimately, any major shift to wean the United States off fossil fuels will require the support of the next president, Inslee said.

“When you think about doing big things in America, you need that spark of presidential vision,” he said. “I think the grand vision is very important in this, and our next president, I’m hopeful and somewhat confident, will create that vision in an inaugural address.”

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