The Cleantech Conservative: Can Conservatives Love Bioenergy (And, vice-versa)?

April 5, 2012 |

By Douglas Faulkner

Many have been watching the Republican presidential sweepstakes unfold from week to week and have been wondering what GOP voters want in a candidate.  And, gasoline prices north of $4 per gallon, with rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, have just as many wondering what the same voters expect in a national energy policy.

Pundits have offered many explanations, but I think many have missed the essential, fundamental question:  GOP voters have really been wrestling with “What is a conservative?”

What indeed? Conservatism is a deep river with many currents, from economic to social to national security.  Generally, it shares a wide affinity with the business community, those who grow, extract, make, finance and sell things.  Conservatives applaud economic growth, a strong military and the individual pursuit of happiness bound by personal individual responsibility.  We support entrepreneurs from Main Street to Wall Street, especially new and small businesses, looking to the private sector, higher education and the states to spark innovation.   In the coming era of essential federal belt-tightening, reducing energy costs should stretch the military’s budget further and give our fighting forces greater operational flexibility.

Certainly, economic vitality and optimism in the future provide healthy environments for vibrant communities and nurturing families.

Above all, we seek a smaller, less intrusive federal government – – a vision that carries more urgency now with the American dream imperiled by a tsunami of debt.

Seen in this light, I would argue that conservatives are natural allies of clean technology – – especially bioenergy – – but on our own terms.  The animal spirits roaring louder everyday in this sector and the incredible pace of technological and market innovation should quicken conservative’s blood, as they begin to understand the power of this emerging marketplace, just as surely as does the potential for new production flowing from domestic oil and gas sectors.

The clear ideological divide then between the right and the left on energy is not so much “what?” but “how?”.  The current Administration has driven a deep wedge into the always rambunctious energy debate with its overspending and overpromising, tilting the playing field through the heavy hand of government, often apparently without considering the counteractive impacts of regulatory actions that shortchange the spending and the promises.   Conservatives now see clean technology through the lenses of this partisan divide, but the tectonic plates starting to shift under our economy should eventually give “green” a home in the reddest of states.

Such a change would be especially welcome for projects that can demonstrate stand-alone economics without the need for massive – – and continuing – – government support like some industries have recently received.

Huge surprises have rippled again and again through the energy economy in recent years. Oil imports have been declining , since the middle of George W. Bush’s Administration – – but are still too high against the backdrop of possible disruptions of world oil markets.  More refined oil products are being exported than imported now, for the first time in decades.  A surge of natural gas production has upended electricity markets.  And, in a real world example of “coal to Newcastle,” U.S. exports of non-subsidized, corn ethanol to Brazil have surged.  In the end, there may be no bigger surprise to Conventional Wisdom than bioenergy companies succeeding and growing globally.

Meanwhile, conservatives have railed against green subsidies, restrictions on oil and gas production, government regulations and the mismanagement of massive federal spending increases.  At the same time though, more and more new bioenergy companies are finding their way to market, raising money in private capital markets, finding innovative ways to make new energy products from many different feedstocks.  Conservatives should be jumping for joy at these paradigm shifts, embracing this entrepreneurial activism and looking for ways to help these markets grow in the conservative tradition.

A conservative approach would break bioenergy’s reliance on big government, demonstrate its symbiosis with legacy systems (e.g., Biofuels Digest’s “green-black” economy), supporting the growth of all forms of energy production with new efficiencies of energy use to generate new jobs and business.   Indeed, Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, has written about the importance of basic research for growing green energy, reducing federal indebtedness and red tape, while fixing the overall business climate.

What could all of this mean for the energy title of a new Farm Bill?  Since it is a virtual certainty that there will be less funding for this title than last time, the Congress could take one of two basic approaches:   either spreading them more thinly over the same programs or placing bets on the highest priorities for critical mass.  I would favor the latter and would argue that the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (Section 9008) would be at the top of that list.

Its genesis is the original Biomass R&D Act of 2000, which has proven to be a remarkably well-thought out, bipartisan piece of legislation, with great staying power; it brought focus to the federal bioenergy activities, especially promoting much-needed collaboration between the Departments of Energy and Agriculture.  We will explore the possibilities for bringing more clarity to that Section, in particular new priorities for federal basic research, in a future column.

Once the dust settles from the primaries and the general election, we can all start the patient rebuilding of the bipartisan case for clean technology, and in particular for bioenergy, while restoring solvency to our nation’s finances.  That next chapter of America’s energy story should highlight the rise of new bioenergy companies, alongside new strength in domestic fossil fuel industries.  This would help usher in a new period of economic growth, wealth creation, new opportunities for job seekers, relief for consumers and distressed communities, and new-found freedom for the Republic.

That is some of what you are seeing in the GOP debates on energy – – the start of a new narrative.  Yes, it is confusing.  But, it is a necessary phase as our political system struggles with out-dated filters to process conflicting information in a time of growing crises.

Conservatives shouldn’t reject clean tech as foreign to our principles or concede it as the natural preserve of the left, but confidently embrace a new direction, on our terms.  Clean-tech conservative sounds as natural to me as home-made cherry pie.  We should celebrate those who take big risks for a dream only they can see, those who work with their hands to make an honest living, those who don’t look first and foremost to the central government for their prime support.  Ignoring jokes from both ends of the political spectrum about algae and “flat-earthers”, we should see the coming decades for what they are:  a time of great, unpredictable changes in the role of government as well as the production and use of energy that will remake conventional wisdom.   That entwined saga is tailor-made for a conservative renaissance.

Can conservatives learn to love renewable fuels and chemicals?  Can those industries reciprocate?  My answer to both questions is Yes! And to quote from the Carpenters song, “we’ve only just begun.”

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