A ‘believer’ takes over conservative carbon tax effort

By Evan Lehmann | 04/27/2015 08:33 AM EDT

The first time Catrina Rorke worked on a carbon tax, it got her boss fired.

Now, she has another shot. The millennial 30-year-old, with bold-rimmed glasses and a composite political identity, is the first director of energy policy for the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank formed almost three years ago when its founder, Eli Lehrer, broke away from the Heartland Institute over its contravening positions on climate change.

Rorke will shoulder R Street’s growing energy program at a time when it’s expanding into state policies on clean electricity, like solar, and other "no duh" issues, such as grid and pipeline infrastructure, she said. Keystone XL is among them.


But the gem in her new job is the group’s work on a revenue-neutral carbon tax that some conservative policy professionals see as a key to broader tax reform. R Street is among the first Republican outfits to push for it, and Rorke said, "I’m a believer."

She has been since 2008. That’s when Rorke signed up for a six-month stint in then-Rep. Bob Inglis’ (R-S.C.) office as a presidential management fellow with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She anticipated a beginner’s course in politics. Not so much.

"I get to his office and he says, ‘Why don’t you help me write a carbon tax bill?’" she recalled.

A couple of drafts were in the works, but the heavy lifting was still to come. Inglis called Rorke "the principal" aide on the bill, along with Garth Meter, his legislative director. Not only did she help write the final bill, something she had never done before, but she also searched around Capitol Hill for Republican supporters — not an easy task, considering that the GOP was unifying against the Democratic push for cap and trade.

Still, she helped convince one.

EPA a ‘horrible solution’ to warming

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), then a congressman, came aboard as a co-sponsor, and the bill was introduced in early 2009 as an alternative to cap and trade. Rorke and her colleagues were "elated." They thought Flake’s high-profile endorsement might open the floodgates.

It did, but not in the way they had hoped. Inglis was attacked politically, and in 2010, he drew a conservative primary opponent in Rep. Trey Gowdy, who won the June runoff in a landslide. Afterward, Inglis said his belief in climate change led to his defeat (ClimateWire, Nov. 22, 2010).

The experience has had lasting influence on Rorke, who seems to believe that addressing climate change will require some political crossbreeding. Democrats do a better job of seeing the problem, but she doesn’t trust them to fix it. Republicans have the solution, but they’re largely blind to the risks.

"I am convinced that Democrats don’t think a price signal works," Rorke said over coffee recently. "I don’t think that they would ever buy into a carbon price signal without the EPA still implementing the Clean Power Plan. And those two things are not possible. You need one or the other. I think the Clean Power Plan is a horrible solution. It’s not going to reduce emissions at a rate that’s great. It’s hard to implement."

On the other hand, she added, "I’m really disappointed that a lot of elected conservatives don’t get on board and think that climate change is a problem. I find that deeply disappointing, because it’s a problem that their party is made to solve."

Rorke seems to dislike labels. She doesn’t call herself a Republican, but she’s spent most of her professional life working for them. She’s been at the American Action Forum, a group founded by Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, for the last 3½ years. She was director of its energy and environment program, and although Holtz-Eakin has expressed support for carbon taxing, the group doesn’t emphasize it.

Lehrer, president of R Street, said Rorke will focus on "smart, small government energy policy and conservative solutions to climate change." She begins today.

Inglis joked that he might try to recruit Rorke if he weren’t a board member of R Street. He runs the Energy and Enterprise Institute at George Mason University but recalled when he and NOAA got into a "bidding war" for Rorke in 2009.

"We stole her fair and square," he said.