Romney’s Surprise Role on Green Energy: Wild Card

If Barack Obama wins a second term on Nov. 6, the impact for clean energy is predictable: Continued, quiet support for policies including production and investment tax credits, even as the President spends the bulk of his political capital on other issues.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, plays a role in the clean energy debate that many casual observers might find unlikely: Wild card. Due partly to Romney’s shifting positions on renewable energy issues, and partly to the peculiar mechanisms of power in Washington, D.C., a Romney administration could make life radically worse for investors and professionals in the clean energy industry.

Perhaps surprisingly, observers say, Romney could also make it radically better.

Under Romney, “clean energy might be better off than what you’d imagine by looking at what’s been said in the policy positions of the campaign,” Travis Bradford, founder of The Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, said during a recent panel on renewable energy organized by Clean Energy Connections, an ongoing forum of discussions in New York City about renewable energy.

Bradford’s counterpart on the panel agreed. Tim Greeff, a lobbyist for Advanced Energy Economy, a trade association for the alternative energy industry, argued that only a Republican like Romney could have a transformative effect on green energy, for good or ill. Much as it took Richard Nixon, a Republican with unimpeachable anti-Communist bona-fides, to open up trade with China in 1972, Greeff suggested that only Romney could overcome the current Republican blockade in Congress to pass major legislation on climate change and renewable energy.

“I actually think that if a carbon tax is a priority for you, that you have a better chance of getting that passed with a Republican president than with a Democratic president,” Greeff said during the panel discussion. Since the Republican Party is currently blocking such large-scale change, “it would require it to come from a Republican leader to get their party in line, and you would have enough Democratic votes to pass it.”

Of course, a Romney that supports cap-and-trade or taxes on carbon is not the Romney whom voters are currently getting to know, and certainly not the Romney that Republicans met during the party’s primaries earlier in the year. Romney, after all, is the candidate who held a press conference in front of the headquarters of Solyndra and called the failed solar cell manufacturer an example of “crony capitalism.” He’s the candidate who vowed during the second Presidential debate that, “I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas.”

Indeed, Romney’s speeches, press releases and energy plan have focused almost entirely on “energy independence,” Greeff said, which translates to “increasing our domestic supplies of oil and switching to more use of natural gas” rather than boosting implementation of green energy technologies.

“The Romney energy plan as it’s written is not particularly pro-renewables,” Shayle Kann, vice president of research at Greentech Media, said as moderator of the panel.

Why, then, do avowed supporters of renewable energy such as Greeff and Bradford see more hope in a potential Romney administration than what might be expected from a close read of the candidate’s campaign speeches and policy proposals? The first variable is Romney himself. As governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Romney helped create a regional cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and he supported legislation that successfully limited toxic emissions from power plants.

“Hopefully the 2003 Romney will be the one that actually governs,” Bradford said. “Romney as a governor interpreted the laws of his state to less bad outcomes than we might imagine based on his campaign.”

Another reason for Romney’s wild card status is the lack of specificity in his energy policies. On his campaign website, Romney backs various ways to boost domestic production of oil and gas, including opening more offshore areas to drilling, and completing the Keystone XL pipeline.

His policies on renewable energy are harder to pin down, however. He calls for “measured reforms of our environmental laws and regulations to strengthen environmental protection without destroying jobs or paralyzing industries,” and he promises to “promote innovation by focusing the federal government on the job it does best – research and development.”

This lack of specificity appears to have helped Romney transition his campaign from appealing to conservative voters in the Republican primaries to the broader audience of the general election. But it makes it more difficult for investors and leaders in the clean tech industry to know just what to expect from a possible Romney administration, Greeff and Bradford agreed.

“You have to remember that his own campaign manager called it the ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ campaign,” said Greeff. “And these kind of policy statements that cite reports but don’t really make specific points don’t really help his case to establish himself as a leader on energy.”

In the context of energy policy, therefore, Obama is a better-known quantity. For all the work that the President did, largely behind-the-scenes, to promote research and implementation of green technologies during his first term, renewable energy took a backseat to other priorities such as health care. If he wins in November, such moderation is likely to continue.

“During the campaign, energy has been a secondary issue, which doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that it will the top priority” during a second term, Greeff said. “I think there’s even odds that immigration, education, and certainly tax reform … have the ability to crowd out energy.”

In the meantime, continued uncertainty about the short-term direction of federal energy policy is creating its own problems.

“Fully functioning, grownup energy supplies should be able to tap the largest, deepest and lowest cost capital market in the world,” Bradford said, “and I don’ think we’re going to be able to see that so long as we have this Damocles Sword hanging over our head that maybe policy will change and maybe it won’t.”


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