Clean energy research money has bipartisan following, but not Paris link

By Jean Chemnick | 12/01/2015 09:25 AM EST

Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill are still deciding what to make of President Obama’s pledge in Paris yesterday to join with other countries in doubling support for research and development for clean energy technologies.

Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill are still deciding what to make of President Obama’s pledge in Paris yesterday to join with other countries in doubling support for research and development for clean energy technologies.

The president pledged during the opening hours of the U.N. climate summit to join with 19 other countries and a group of business heavy hitters to help develop and deploy new technologies (Greenwire, Nov. 29). The new public-private partnership, led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, does not fit with the narrative on Democratic regulations around which the GOP has built its climate change field war.

Obama’s promise to spend an additional $5 billion by 2020 on basic energy research was made without congressional buy-in, and Republicans have warned repeatedly that they feel no obligation to fulfill such pledges. But R&D — unlike climate adaptation or other causes Obama has attempted to unilaterally fund — is not traditionally divisive. It has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the past as a way of improving U.S. competitiveness.


"And by taking this approach on a global scale — with unprecedented investment in public research, an unprecedented pool of private capital — Mission Innovation will help deliver affordable clean energy and new jobs and opportunities to people around the world for decades to come," the president said in his remarks in Paris. "This is how we’re going to solve this challenge — together."

This focus on encouraging new technology also plays to a new Republican talking point on climate change. GOP lawmakers and candidates for president in recent months have begun to call for a response to warming that embraces entrepreneurship rather than regulation, a shift from the old message of disputing climate science that polls show the public is starting to reject.

To wit, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican presidential contender Carly Fiorina told NBC in September that the answer to climate change is "innovation, and the only way to innovate is for this nation to have industry strong enough that they can innovate."

And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a blog post last week that Obama should "embrace the hydraulic fracturing revolution produced largely by the free market."

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Republicans continued to pour cold water on Obama’s overall hopes of helping to broker a U.N. deal on carbon emissions and climate aid. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used statements on the Senate floor and an op-ed in The Washington Post to warn those gathering in the French capital that U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan is "likely illegal" and will soon topple. And House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans noted that the House will follow the Senate as soon as today in approving a resolution to kill the existing power plant rule.

But the silence on the new funding pledge was deafening.

Yankee ingenuity rides again?

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) brushed questions away with a "we’ll take it one bill at a time."

Only the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, helmed by Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who acknowledges climate change, responded to inquiries from ClimateWire.

"Congress is already on track to increase funding for energy R&D, and we welcome the news of greater private investment in this area," said committee spokesman Robert Dillon. "Innovation is widely supported in Congress, but it will be critical for President Obama and whomever follows him to avoid the traditional habit of picking winners and losers — and to instead look at opportunities for innovation in a fuel- and technology-neutral manner."

Dillon noted that the committee has already produced legislation that would increase investment in energy R&D.

"The key is for the administration to not pick winners and losers in technology, but look at opportunities for innovation in a fuel- and technology-neutral manner," he said. This means not limiting it to technologies that are low-carbon, he said.

A House leadership aide applauded Gates. "America is home to the most innovative minds in the world, and whenever private citizens push the technological boundaries, it should be celebrated," he said.

Republicans have berated the Obama administration for separately promising $3 billion in adaptation and mitigation assistance to poor countries last year without consulting Congress, and have moved to use that pledge as leverage to demand that the administration submit any agreement that emerges from Paris for Senate review.

Environmentalists say the State Department might have the latitude to still provide the Green Climate Fund contribution unless Congress explicitly forbids it, and the same may be true of the Mission Innovation funding.

But while Republicans reviewed Obama’s newest unilateral pledge, observers off Capitol Hill said the fund itself would have been relatively noncontroversial were it not attached to the political powder keg that is the Paris climate summit.

It’s an even better response to climate change than the rest of the agreement is likely to be, said Frank Maisano, who represents industry clients for Bracewell & Giuliani.

"Focusing on this is a much better approach than trying to slap people’s hands and telling them they need to reduce emissions or use less power or use something else," he said.

Right stage, wrong backdrop

There is some possibility that Republicans might supply the funding envisioned in this proposal, said GOP political strategist Mike McKenna, if it goes to support research that is "legit" and not directed to a few industries. The proposed dollar amount is quite modest, he noted.

But the choice of Paris as a backdrop "just couldn’t be worse," he said. "It would have been a hell of a lot better if they’d done it some other place, some other time."

Among the 27 other private investors who will join Gates on the initiative are billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and Democratic megadonor George Soros, a fact McKenna said lent a partisan sheen to the whole enterprise.

"The optics are terrible, just terrible," he said.

James Lucier, a political risk analyst with Capital Alpha Partners LLC, said the Paris rollout was a good way to inject life into the talks. The United States could put forward a small pot of money with the promise that it will be "magnified by the commercial savvy of Bill Gates" and by contributions from partner nations.

"It’s a pretty interesting maneuver, but again it goes back to the basic problem," he said.

And that is Congress’ frustration with an administration that keeps trying to skirt the Senate’s advice and consent function while crafting foreign agreements.

"From a congressional perspective, the question is: ‘What part of no do you not understand?’" he said. The White House may succeed in persuading Congress to increase the budget for basic research, but not if it comes together with an agreement the majority party already rejects, he said.