How Can Political Parties Agree on Energy Policy?

April 12, 2016  • Alison Decker

Key Points

  • Could energy policies like a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax serve as a point of unification between Democrats and Republics?

Above, watch the full video of the conversation on energy policy in America.

For anyone watching television coverage of the presidential campaign over the past few months, it may seem like climate change has been swept under the rug. Though it may be out of the spotlight, its consequences are too potentially devastating to be pushed aside. Activists across sectors are hard at work to build policies that will foster bipartisan support and effective change across the energy industry in America — a somewhat herculean task in today’s divided political climate.

There are many challenges surrounding creating broadly-supported energy policy — and building the coalition itself is one of them, said former Republican congressman Bob Inglis, at the recent Aspen Institute event “Finding Common Ground on Energy and Environment in America,” hosted by the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program and Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy.

Panelists Bill Ritter Jr., former governor (CO); Bob Inglis, former member of Congress (SC); Theodore Roosevelt IV, managing director, Barclays Capital Corporation; and Heather Zichal, former deputy assistant to President Barack Obama for energy and climate change, discussed ways to encourage people across sectors and political parties to support policies with positive environmental effects.

Through his organization RepublicEN, Inglis works to bring political parties, business leaders, and the American public together behind simple energy policy that will have a big impact, with much of his work focusing on bridging gaps between these divided groups. He compared the position of current Republican Congress members to being stuck out on the limb of a tree, trying to shimmy back to the structurally sound trunk of science without losing face.

“Environmentally left groups come out and shine a light on the people stuck on a limb and say, ‘Look at the idiot!’” he explained. “But [RepublicEN’s] business model is quite different. We’re the ladder brigade. We have a ladder right here to get you back to the safer trunk.”

Inglis is advocating for a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax. This tax would put a price on carbon dioxide for the taxpayers, but would be matched with corresponding cuts of existing taxes. So for every dollar raised through the carbon dioxide tax, a different tax would be cut — which could mean corporate income tax reduction, individual income tax reduction, or Social Security tax reduction, in order to return 100 percent of the money back to the taxpayers.

It would also be border-adjustable, which means that the price on carbon dioxide would be removed on exports and imposed on imports, allowing the US to set a tax on goods and services that exceeded manufacturing emissions standards.

Zichal is hopeful about the possibility of broad support for the carbon tax, but warned that it will take a lot of work to be implemented, especially after the Obama presidency. Zichal said that the size of the environmental challenges made them difficult to tackle within the current American governmental framework.

“Our government is mainly reactive… and then there is the nature of the scale of the challenge. Government is cyclical in two, four, six year terms — [the challenge] is within how our government is structured.”

Projects Zichal believes are more feasible include issues the current administration has been tackling, such as methane regulation on existing sources like fractured natural gas wells or other parts of the oil sector, a midterm review for fuel economy standards, and a clean power plan, all of which have the potential for large environmental impact.

“How can we make sure that these things can get across the finish line?”

Along with these shorter-term projects, Zichal also suggested potential future partnerships, where political parties and business leaders could potentially form a consensus.

Along with expanding public-private partnerships to increase cooperation among sectors and improve energy efficiency standards, she noted that one of the eey places she sees the possibility of bipartisan support is in climate preparedness: helping communities take preventative actions against a changing climate. As American communities face threats like rising sea levels and more frequent wildfires, they need to make sure their infrastructure is safe.

“If you look at the science and what is happening,” she said, “we have no choice but to give better tools to our communities. This issue deserves a better, coordinated effort at every level.”

Environmental issues are not just relegated to political parties to address: business leaders also play a key role in pushing policy forward. According to Roosevelt, high-level corporations are looking for environmental solutions that don’t cut into their bottom lines and also benefit society in the long-term.

“The business community recognizes that globally, [becoming environmentally friendly] is something that will happen,” Roosevelt said. “They want to be a part of it. We have a number of initial investors saying, ‘help us understand what we should be doing with our money to get ahead of the curve.’”

Ultimately, to create an America that has a greener impact on the world, stakeholders in the issue will have to build bridges towards common ground and adopt strategies that are appealing across party lines, said Bill Ritter, former Colorado governor.

“The issue of whether we act or not is a moral issue,” he said. “How we do it — that is a political issue. But it should never have become a partisan issue.”

Alison Decker is an editorial associate on the Communications team at the Aspen Institute.