01/16/2014 07:35 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Unlikely Hero

Maybe there is hope for closing the gaping partisan divide between the two major political parties, at least on environmental matters. Republican Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, an ultra-conservative at odds with environmental activists on virtually all issues, has been honored as a "hero" in the promotion of renewable energy.

It just so happens that clean, carbon-free renewable energy is a signature component of the environmental movement's agenda. That made the award initially something of a surprise when it was bestowed by the British newspaper The Guardian. Nevertheless, the newspaper is known for being an astute observer of the American scene, and upon reflection, the publication was on target.

Brownback is not a Johnny-come-lately in support for renewables. When in the U.S. Senate, he co-sponsored a bipartisan bill instituting a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) mandating that utilities supply a percentage of their electricity from wind, solar, and/or other renewable sources.

As governor, he has fought for a RES and an extension of a tax credit for wind energy. The latter is a big deal in his state, which possesses favorable conditions for that form of energy and has implemented it in a major way. Brownback has also stood firm against formidable opposition to the RES from the industrialist Koch brothers and the American Petroleum Institute (API), normally allies of conservative Republicans.

The Koch machine, API, and a majority of Republicans in Congress pay lip service to renewables, but seek to impede these energy alternatives' expansion at every opportunity. They do so by maintaining that renewable energy's fate should be determined by free competition in the marketplace, not regulation. That is a euphemism for retention of an uneven playing field in which the fossil fuel industry enjoys hefty federal subsidies that dwarf any government assistance to the relatively fledgling alternative of renewables. And it is an unbalanced competitive advantage that Koch et al want maintained for the foreseeable future.

Brownback and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, another ultra conservative Republican who has also adopted an activist stance towards renewables, have not come close to experiencing an environmental epiphany. Their enthusiasm for renewable energy is driven primarily by economic pragmatism. Both their states have terrain in which clean wind energy has the potential to ultimately provide a cheaper alternative to imported coal.

Although there is no looming dramatic ideological conversion on the governors' part, environmentalists happily accept the officials' limited support. At this stage of such a polarized body politic, one must be grateful for small victories, and besides, enlightenment must start somewhere.