Some conservatives, concerned they're being left behind in the clean-energy discussion, have begun to show a growing interest in renewable energy and public policy at both the state and federal level.
State organizations have formed to promote a free market view of energy, and national advocacy groups have become more forceful in the debate, as seen a forum held last week at the Republican convention.
Tonight in Minneapolis, the non-partisan Citizens League joins with the newly formed Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum to hold a panel discussion billed “Conservative Approaches to Clean Energy.” One of those panelists is Catrina Rorke, state program director at the right-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank R Street Institute.
Before joining R Street a year ago, Rorke started the energy program at the American Action Forum. She’s also worked for a Congressional member on Capitol Hill.
She spoke to Midwest Energy News about what a conservative approach to clean energy might look like and addressed a few state issues in the Midwest. The interview was edited for clarity.
Midwest Energy News: How would you describe your advocacy?
Rorke: My work has been to show how if you apply conservative principles you can see much better environmental outcomes through the creation of markets and technologies that are new, and awesome, and changing the way people interact with energy decision making.
What do conservatives see in clean energy that is attractive?
Debbie Dooley was really the first to point out that there are a lot of people who want to have choices in energy. The beautiful thing about rooftop solar technology is that you can produce power for yourself. For people who want to be more self-sufficient this is great. But I think adoption would be faster by eliminating subsidies and focusing on market solutions. That will help us integrate these technologies over the long term and create more solutions conservatives will like.
Let’s talk policy. Do we need a carbon tax?
R Street has spent a long time advocating for a revenue neutral carbon price as an alternative to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases. I think that would be a really great first step – an outcome-based policy that doesn’t ask government to set an emissions target. We’re asking the market to design itself around internalizing the price of carbon dioxide.
What about the Clean Power Plan?
I don’t think the Clean Power Plan is good policy. I don’t think it’s actually legal under the Clean Air Act, I think the EPA has far outstepped their boundaries in devising this regulation and others recently. At a minimum we need Congress to address greenhouse gas emissions through updated legislation. [The Clean Power Plan is] destructive to our energy economy.
Have you looked at Minnesota’s energy policies?
Minnesota uses a mandate, a renewable energy standard, to promote clean energy. We’re seeing in other states that businesses are contracting, through third-party purchasing agreements, relatively large amounts of renewable power. They can only do that in states that allow this third party construct, and Minnesota doesn’t.
Minnesota uses government mandates and the will of the utilities to promote clean, energy, but not market choice. But I like the value of solar approach the state is beginning to use and I’m interested to see how that plays out.
Your very opposed to tax credits for renewables, right?
Our focus at R Street is eliminating tax preferences of all sorts, through the Green Scissors coalition and other efforts. We want to get rid of tax preferences for incumbent industries and for renewable energy subsidies. We want to eliminate subsidies that come and go and therefore create a lot of instability in the marketplace.
What about all the tax credits for fossil fuel industries?
In environmental tax policy it’s an interesting question as to what counts as a tax break. A lot of times when you see breaks in the tax code for fossil fuels it’s because they actually pay more than other kinds of businesses in taxes. So there is a healthy debate as to what constitutes a tax break. I think we should get rid of all tax breaks.
You mentioned a paper you're about to release on the topic of taxation.
We’re working on a paper now that would replace all corporate income tax entirely with a carbon tax and force EPA to get rid of regulations for CO2 emissions. That would create a much clearer tax code for energy purposes.
You also don’t like efficiency standards, do you?
The Department of Energy has 50 categories of appliances that require a minimum efficiency level for those devices. That strategy eliminates choice. My belief is that all kinds of people ask for Energy Star devices. Plenty of them opt into efficiency, so we don’t have to limit what they buy to get the same result.
You call for the elimination of the renewable fuel standards, which is something plenty of people left and right agree on, right?
There is a desire to re-evaluate the renewable fuel standard and ethanol as a transportation fuel. The renewable fuel standard was passed to encourage energy security by growing our transportation fuel rather than importing it. We’re producing now a lot of oil at home, so the reason of energy security is now off the table. We know ethanol above a certain level can damage engines. It’s not as favorable for emissions as we thought, either, so it’s time to re-evaluate the policy.
What about business responsibility for carbon emissions and pollution in general? So much of your argument is about limiting government regulation. You’re trusting business to do the right thing.
I would point to the example of third-party purchase agreements. There are ways companies go above and beyond state level energy policy. They have sustainability goals themselves. They often want to go beyond what the government does. We do want to allow businesses to go above and beyond government, but there is a strong role for government in making sure we don’t have excessive pollution, that we don’t trample people’s rights. We want a government that is small and effective.