Some who attended the 2008 Republican Convention had a sinking feeling when Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele shouted out his “drill, baby, drill” slogan. The slogan is an ill-advised attempt to rally Republicans around a simplistic and unrealistic answer to the nation’s energy concerns. Because the United States sits atop less than 3 percent of the world’s remaining conventional oil reserves, the slogan—which was immediately embraced by then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin—lacks even a passing acquaintance with the geologic and strategic energy realities facing the nation.
Former President George W. Bush was correct in his 2006 State of the Union Address when he said: “And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.” But while Bush powerfully identified the problem and challenged America to “move beyond a petroleum-based economy,” the “drill, baby, drill” mentality continues to dominate the GOP’s energy rhetoric and policy focus. The Republican answer to America’s oil addiction is the functional equivalent to addressing alcoholism by producing more domestic liquor.
Republican slogans like “drill, baby, drill” and an earlier Newt Gingrich version—”drill here, drill now, pay less,” along with the policy direction they portend—are in part the product of short-term political calculations and fossil fuel industry influence, but they are also symptomatic of a GOP approach to natural resources that has largely ignored traditionalist conservative notions about conservation and stewardship. Securing America’s energy future requires Republicans to pursue a forward-thinking energy policy that stays true to those fundamental conservative ideas.
Forget Fossil Fuels
Obviously, the nation cannot cut oil production cold turkey—as some environmental groups seem to suggest—and Republicans need to provide some balance, but neither can continued overdependence on fossil fuels be the central focus of a responsible energy policy.
An imbalanced energy strategy that focuses predominantly on oil and coal perpetuates the United States’ heavy dependence on these finite resources, and by doing so, adversely impacts national security, economic prosperity, and environmental health—more severely so as the U.S. depletes fossil fuel reserves and global demand edges closer to outpacing supply.
While the United States has significant coal reserves, a peer-reviewed article recently published in the journal Energy warns against complacency. It projects that coal supply will soon fail to keep pace with demand because most of the remaining deposits are logistically difficult and costly to mine.
Waste Not, Want Not
It is no coincidence that the words “conservative” and “conservation” are two letters removed from being the same. Russell Kirk, the influential conservative writer and theorist who Ronald Reagan praised as “the prophet of American conservatism,” wrote, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”
It is an aspect of conservatism that has been lost amidst the rants of supposedly conservative talk radio hosts who boast about their energy gluttony and ridicule automobile fuel efficiency—and the fervor of a Tea Party crowd that rallies around the importance of living within our fiscal means but is oblivious to doing the same with natural resources.
Kirk recognized that wasteful consumption fails to respect the whole of society by destroying the inheritance of our posterity. He made this connection clear in the following excerpt from his celebrated book The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot:
The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors.
Kirk understood that the chief virtue of a conservative is prudence. He concluded that, “The American conservative will endeavor to exert some intelligent check upon material will and appetite.”
With respect to energy, today’s “conservatives” are not endeavoring to exert any kind of check on material will and appetite. The Republican Party, with its heavy focus on energy production and coolness to conservation measures, has unfortunately positioned itself as the party of waste and excess.
Embrace Clean Energy
Conservatism is as much about stewardship as it is about freedom. Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman regarded as the father of modern conservatism, noted that present generations have no right to “commit waste on the inheritance” of future generations. Kirk echoed the importance of stewardship in a 1970 Baltimore Sun op-ed, writing “only the unscrupulous or shortsighted can defend pollution and degradation of the countryside.”
That stewardship ethic, along with the faith that conservatives have in the business community’s entrepreneurial abilities, should make production of clean, domestic energy a high priority for Republicans. So far, however, the GOP embrace of clean energy has been tepid at best. Some of this lack of enthusiasm is because a number of key Republicans hail from states with strong fossil fuel interests, but perhaps the biggest reason is the fact that Democrats beat them to the punch.
To use a football metaphor, Democrats have picked up the clean energy ball and are trying to advance it, which has Republicans playing defense to prevent them from crossing the goal line and scoring points with the issue. Playing defense against something as mom and apple pie as clean energy is a losing game plan—for the nation and the party. What Republicans should be doing instead is taking the clean energy ball away from the Democrats and advancing it more effectively with better ideas.
Congressional Republicans are right to insist that nuclear energy be part of the American strategy for moving beyond fossil fuels, but they should be equally strong advocates for renewable energy. Republicans should develop effective and efficient strategies to help all of these domestic energy sources thrive in the marketplace and reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels.
Republicans must overcome a tendency to conflate what Kirk called “industrial and acquisitive interests” with conservative interests. It is one thing to fight pollution with the minimal bureaucracy needed to do the job, but it is another thing entirely to promote lax standards or other impediments to responsible pollution control.
One reason Republican leaders were unable to take full advantage of President Obama’s missteps on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is that their fingerprints are all over the poor industry oversight that contributed to the disaster.
Balance Resource Use with Protection
That lack of diligence runs counter to Republicans’ unrivaled legacy of protecting America’s most treasured lands and waters—from Abraham Lincoln’s protection of Yosemite to the many conservation accomplishments of Theodore Roosevelt, to Ronald Reagan’s treaty to stop chemical pollution of the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.
This is a heritage that the Republican Party should embrace and build on. Whether one looks at polling on environmental views or the results of open space referendums, it is clear that the vast majority of Americans want to see more of America’s natural beauty protected.
For example, a poll conducted earlier this year by Public Opinion Strategies and FM3 found that 83 percent of Republicans support using money from oil and gas production to conserve natural areas, with 74 percent of Republicans supporting full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is primarily used to acquire land for protection.
It is not only popular to balance the use of natural resources with the protection of other natural resources; it is conservative. Kirk wrote, “ambition without pious restraint must end in failure” and there is no sense of balance or restraint in a slogan like “drill, baby, drill.”
Republicans must be equally concerned with identifying places that should be protected from fossil fuel development as they are with identifying places where drilling should be allowed. As Ronald Reagan said, “A strong nation is one that is loved by its people and, as Edmund Burke put it, for a country to be loved it ought to be lovely.”
Pursue Market-Based Solutions
As the U.S. faces the prospects of declining fossil fuel reserves and the many problems associated with fossil fuel overdependence, it is in the nation’s interest to be a world leader in developing technologies that will power the future. The United States cannot afford to let China become the Saudi Arabia of next generation energy technologies.
Many of America’s largest utilities and other energy-related businesses are clamoring for the regulatory certainty and market conditions needed to boldly invest in alternative energy technologies today—not after other countries have beat the U.S. to the punch. American companies are sitting on billions of dollars in investment capital, waiting to see where they should invest.
They support legislation to limit and/or price carbon pollution in order to send the market a signal that incentivizes clean energy investment and ensures that temporary dips in fossil fuel prices will not undermine their investments. Such legislation can track Republican preferences for market-friendly policy. The concept of limiting pollution through a price mechanism was formulated by the Reagan administration as an alternative to the bureaucratic command and control approach favored by the Democrats.
In 1990, when President George H.W. Bush sold a version of this approach to Congress for reducing acid rain, there were plenty of skeptics among Democrats and in the environmental community. However, his cap-and-trade approach worked so well (more reductions, less cost) that the doubters became converts.
Ironically, instead of taking credit for this novel approach to pollution reduction, many of today’s Republican leaders—perhaps disoriented by the Democrat support—have demonized cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax.” These same Republicans, along with the bombastic libertarians on talk radio and those with fossil fuel interests, have gone a step further with rhetoric that dismisses any limits on pollution as an “energy tax” on consumers.
Such an extreme position contradicts conservative traditions of stewardship. It also turns 40 years of pollution control progress on its head, sanctions the irresponsible shift of pollution costs onto society, and plays into the hands of OPEC’s manipulation of oil markets.
Noted economist Dr. Arthur Laffer is one of many conservatives who supports putting a price on carbon pollution to, as he puts it, “attach the national security and environmental costs to carbon-based fuels like oil, causing the market to recognize the price of these negative externalities.” One difference between what conservatives like Dr. Laffer propose and what Democrats are peddling is that the Democrat proposals typically use the revenue to expand government, while conservative proposals send the revenue back to the public via rebates or lower taxes.
The Republican Party needs to move beyond its “drill, baby, drill” and “cap and tax” rhetoric and reclaim the moral high ground by articulating a prudent, long-term vision to secure America’s energy future.
Such a vision does not mean signing onto the complex, overly bureaucratic and costly proposals Democrats tend to come up with. It means developing thoughtful, forward-thinking, conservative solutions to America’s energy-related problems that take the “negative externalities” of fossil fuel dependence seriously and advance cleaner and more sustainable alternatives.
It also requires that the party put problem-solving above partisanship and rediscover its commitment to conservation and stewardship. By doing so, Republicans can responsibly lead America into a brighter, more secure energy future that is firmly rooted in traditional conservative values.
David Jenkins is vice president for government and political affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection.