Taking a conservative approach to clean energy

Wind turbines
A new group aims to give conservatives a voice in natural gas, wind and solar energy policies.
Jim Mone | AP 2006

At the Republican National Convention last week, delegates wearing hard hats went wild when Donald Trump's running mate Mike Pence said, "Donald Trump digs coal!"

Pence was showing support for the West Virginia coal industry, which has declined in recent years. Republican Party officials went even further in the party's platform, declaring that coal is an affordable and clean form of energy.

But many conservatives have said that a strong focus on protecting coal isn't giving Republicans enough opportunities to weigh in on the country's energy future.

So a new group designed to give conservatives a voice on energy policy has been formed, and their message is far different from those at the RNC.

"Let's get away from the standard talking points for Republicans that focus on one area of energy production," said Amy Koch, a former state senator who served as majority leader when Republicans controlled the chamber earlier this decade.

Koch recently joined the board of the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum, a group that wants to push for market-driven, consumer-friendly energy policies. The group will join the Citizens League Monday afternoon to host a discussion about growing interest among conservatives to embrace technological innovations that are making energy cleaner and more affordable.

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Koch said at first she was unsure about how the group would be received by fellow Republicans, but she believes it's a good fit. "When you talk about consumer-driven electric generation and getting the cost down, that's actually completely in our wheelhouse. It shouldn't be a surprise."

While the forum's statement of principles says it embraces all forms of energy, it also acknowledges that consumers are demanding cleaner energy, and that Americans want to spend part of their wealth on a clean environment.

"If you look at polling, everybody — conservatives, independents and liberals — really share the same goal, which is to have a cleaner energy mix going into the future," said David Strom, executive director of the Conservative Energy Forum.

Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota came together a decade ago to boost renewable energy by implementing a renewable energy standard and setting goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But since then, Minnesota Republicans have followed a national trend away from action on climate change.

Strom said the group aims to reframe the debate and get conservatives back to the table.

"We just want to stay away from the whole argument over global warming, which we think is kind of a dead end," he said. "We just want to get back to the issue of energy policy."

Pat Garofalo, GOP chair of the energy committee in the Minnesota House, is one of the speakers at Monday's discussion. He said energy must be both clean and affordable.

"Historically, we've had to spend more money to clean up our energy," Garofalo said, "and with the breakthroughs in technology, that's just simply not the case."

Coal-fired power plants throughout the country are being retired, not just because of emissions regulations, but also because they're too expensive to run, especially when compared to natural gas and wind power. The cost of solar power has also dropped in recent years.

This has led the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to conclude that increasing the state's renewable energy standard would be the best way for Minnesota to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A 2007 law calls for a 30 percent reduction by 2025, a goal the state is not currently on track to meet.

Catrina Rorke, who directs energy policy at a free-market, Libertarian think tank called R Street, said the government setting higher standards isn't the answer. "It seems about time that we can allow the market to take over, and that's what conservatives want to see," Rorke said.

Democrats in the state don't appear to share that view. Last week, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith told nonprofits and business groups that the state should look at increasing its renewable energy standard to 50 percent.