In the aftermath of the midterm elections, it's unlikely that Washington can overcome the crippling gridlock in Congress. Yet one critical opportunity for bipartisan compromise stands out among the rest: energy policy.
Addressing the country the day after elections, President Obama signaled a clear opening by pressing the reset button on cap and trade and calling for a new agenda. "I don't think there's anybody in America who thinks that we've got an energy policy that works the way it needs to, that thinks that we shouldn't be working on energy independence," he declared. "And that gives opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to come together and think about... how do we move forward on that agenda."
Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) quickly agreed. "I think energy is an area where there is potential for a bipartisan accomplishment of some consequence," Senator McConnell told the Wall Street Journal. "There are a variety of other things there could be pretty broad agreement on... Nobody thinks it is a bad idea to reduce carbon emissions, the question is how do you do it."
President Obama and Senator McConnell both cited electric vehicles and nuclear power as areas for compromise, and indeed these are both important areas to support. But electric vehicles and nuclear power are only two pieces of a much larger puzzle, and without a larger framework, Congress risks taking a small-bore approach and missing a larger opportunity to achieve energy independence.
So what's the fresh new idea that Democrats and Republicans alike can embrace? A growing number of experts have endorsed one approach, summed up on Sunday in a prominent piece by the Washington Post editorial board:
Where can President Obama and ascendant House Republicans find compromise?... The American Energy Innovation Council, a group of business leaders that includes Bill Gates, hopes that the parties might yet be able to agree on a more ambitious and cohesive policy. It recommends a $16 billion annual investment in clean energy innovation, including research and support for getting new technologies to market. An ideologically diverse group of think tankers from the Breakthrough Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution agrees and argues that Congress should supplement that investment with subsidies that lower the price of new energy sources.
The Brookings/AEI/Breakthrough report, "Post-Partisan Power," was released just before the election and has since received a wide variety of endorsements. The heart of the plan is to overhaul the U.S. energy innovation system with strategic federal investments in clean energy, on the scale of $25 billion annually, to drive down the cost of low-carbon energy technologies for deployment in the U.S. and abroad. It would also support energy science and engineering education, similar to the National Energy Education Act my colleague and I proposed with Breakthrough Institute back in 2008.
Of course, even with such fertile ground for compromise on a critical national issue, the current anti-investment and deficit-centric mentality in Washington doesn't add up to hopeful prospects for the next Congress, as the Post editorial recognized. Not that there's any shortage of smart revenue streams for such strategic federal investments, which eventually would easily pay for themselves. But as Andrew Revkin noted at New York Times' Dot Earth, "This election almost guarantees an end to the brief stimulus-driven period of increased investment in advancing energy technologies that could supplant finite fossil fuels."
In the near term, then, the measure of success for this new energy innovation agenda should not be whether it can immediately advance in lame-duck session or the next Congress -- although advancing specific pieces is an urgent cause. Rather, the measure of near-term success should be whether this approach can continue building support among thought leaders, advocates, reporters, and a group of committed policymakers. As one prominent economist once wrote, "That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."
But in the absence of growing momentum behind this approach, it is hard to see how any large and cohesive clean energy agenda can develop in the aftermath of cap and trade for the foreseeable future. There is simply no clear or viable alternative. In the meantime, the United States will continue falling behind in a major strategic growth sector, shipping hundreds of billions of dollars overseas annually to pay for foreign oil, and damaging the conditions for a livable global climate system. Given the enormous stakes, the leaders capable of breaking the energy stalemate will no doubt be counted among the great legislators of the early 21st century -- if only they will step up and seize this opportunity.