The other night, I was fortunate to attend a wonderful event at the National Building Museum where former EPA administrator, William K. Reilly was honored with the Vincent Scully Prize for his work on preserving land. Listening to Mr. Reilly speak brought me back to a time in the not too distant past, where caring about the environment and fighting climate change were not partisan concerns, but were simply part of a shared American concern for protecting what we care about most. See, Mr. Reilly is a long time Republican, and was EPA administrator under President George H. Bush in the 1980’s and early 90’s. In short, he was the preverbal, “green elephant” in the room.
To me, there really should be room in the broader policy debate on environmental issues for “conservative” solutions and “liberal” solutions, as there was back in the day when Mr. Reilly and President Bush ran things. Let’s look at one very close to home example. In Maryland, I fought for and co-wrote the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that passed and became law in 2004. A similar law passed Texas under George W. Bush. The RPS requires companies that sell electricity in the state to get an increasing amount from renewable sources over time. It does this by establishing a “cap” on the cost of the renewable energy through the mechanism of an Alternative Compliance Payment (ACP), or monetary penalty for those companies that fall short. The beauty of the RPS is that it sets a framework and then let’s the market figure out how best to meet the requirement. Contrast that with the more government-centric solution, the Feed-in Tariff (FIT). The FIT has government regulators set a price for renewable power and then forces electricity companies to pay that price. This has been done in Europe.
In a normal policy environment, one would think the RPS is the more conservative, market based approach, and the FIT is the more liberal, government oriented approach. The RPS is modeled off the hugely successful cap-and-trade approach that Mr. Reilly and his boss took to clean up our air when they were in office. Indeed, RPS legislation has been passed by dozens of states in the past, with bi-partisan support. But by the time we passed the bill in Maryland, the RPS had become almost an exclusive province of the Democrats. I don’t recall getting more than a couple of Republican votes for the measure. And now in the U.S. Congress, I highly doubt conservatives would allow a national RPS to pass.
The RPS in Maryland, though far from perfect, has done much to boost economic activity and create jobs in our state. Solar companies proliferate, while other green energy companies are starting to come into the market. Thanks to market forces, the cost of the RPS is a fraction of what the naysayers thought it would be when it was debated in 2004. Yes, the market works with proper rules in place, along with transparency and accountability.
I wish I had a magic wand that could bring the environmental debate back to the dimensions it had in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. Since I’m a muggle with no magic power, we’ll have to settle for a renewed effort to frame the debate to fight climate change around things that resonate with the majority of Americans who are not blinded by ideology – things like creating a new economy, setting a structure and allowing the free market to work, preserving places of beauty and value for future generations, conserving the resources of our nation, ensuring our grand children have access to the things we all take for granted, clean air, clean water, a sea full of life, wetlands that protect our communities, and an eco system in balance.