A move to getting 'right' on clean energy?

In what passes for public debate on energy, it’s sometimes easy to believe that conservatives are the fossils in fossil fuels and that liberals are loonies leading us to an unreliable future where the sun never sets and the wind always blows. 

That can be the view, at least, if you are watching too much cable “news.” 

If you get out, as I did last month, and actually talk to some conservatives and liberals, you can end up breaking some stereotypes. 

I was attracted to two clean energy events hosted the same week — one by a vanguard of conservatives and Tea Party types, the other populated by some of Austin’s finest liberals. 

I expected to encounter dueling positions over “clean” energy. Instead, what I heard was some common interest on topics ranging from the environment to rooftop solar to taxes. 

It was radical. 

End subsidies for all energy. Tax pollution. Innovate. Encourage partnerships with groups like the Sierra Club

And that was the message from the conservatives. 

My head was spinning like a wind turbine. 

Now for the caveat. 

There were fewer than 100 conservatives at the State Theater event in downtown Austin. (I think Rick Perry has more lawyers than that.) 

And this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, drill-baby-drill message that’s an easy sell in a 30-second political ad. 

It was titled: “Getting Energy Right for Texas: A Fresh Conservative Take on Energy.” The sponsors were the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation (from the father of fracking) and the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, proponents of natural gas and renewable energy. 

The panelists included: 

Debbie Dooley, founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and the Green Tea Party, which partners with the Sierra Club on environmental issues. She also is fighting “monopoly utilities” that don’t want rooftop solar to spread over Georgia like morning dew. 

To Dooley, rooftop solar is a freedom issue: I’ll give you my solar panel when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. 

Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina congressman who continues his message on energy and climate issues from a Virginia think tank after the Tea Party kicked him out of office in 2010. 

Eli Lehrer, co-founder of R Street Institute, a free market think tank with offices in Washington, D.C., Florida, Ohio and Austin. 

• Former Texas Sen. Kip Averitt, who now heads the Texas Clean Energy Coalition. 

The crux of the evening’s message: A free market can more efficiently pick winners and losers than government regulators can. 

But you have to create the right market: 

• End all energy subsidies, including those for oil, gas and coal. “I’m all for drilling but oil companies don’t need subsidies,” Inglis said. 

• Put a tax on energy sources that pollute. “Coal producers should have to pay to clean up the environment,” Dooley said. 

Lehrer isn’t advocating a windfall for government by taxing pollution. He’d cut taxes on other segments of the economy. 

“Let’s tax the stuff (pollution) that we don’t want and cut taxes on the stuff we want,” Lehrer. 

The panel acknowledged the difficulty of communicating this message in the GOP primaries, but they insisted it could be done. 

Inglis, who was defeated by the Tea Party in 2010, said, “I do believe the Tea Party will see the power of these ideas eventually.” 

Dooley said the secret is rallying pro-environmental conservatives to defend candidates who adopt this platform: “They want to know there are other conservative groups who will have their backs.” 

Two nights after the event, I told Jim Marston, founding director of the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund, about the conservatives’ proposal. 

“I’d take it in a minute,” Marston said. 

I told you this is a radical idea. 

Truth is, Austin can celebrate its clean energy leadership role all it wants, but until attitudes change at the Capitol, any gains remain local. 

Averitt insists it can happen. 

“Thirty years ago, if you were concerned about the environment, you were a communist and couldn’t get elected,” Averitt said. “Today, if you’re not concerned about the environment, you are a goober and can’t get elected.” 

Really? 

Who’s going to tell the goobers at the Capitol?

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© 2012-2017 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.