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Dems need ‘big tent’ energy policies that appeal to American heartland

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For more than a generation, Democrats have valiantly advocated policies to combat the serious problem of climate change. But they have usually done so with indifference or disdain for the economic and energy views of most voters. The result has usually been electoral calamity for Democrats. 

white paper released this week from New Democracy, a group of 40 centrist Democratic governors, members of Congress and state officials, argues that Democrats in purple and red regions must embrace all forms of clean energy, including shale gas and nuclear, and emphasize that they alone can deliver U.S. energy abundance and climate protection together, to win back majorities. 

{mosads}Attacking President Trump and Scott Pruitt will not be enough. Kowtowing to far-left “leave in the ground” oil and gas prohibitionists is self-defeating as well. Democrats must have a positive vision for the benefits to average Americans of the new-energy economy.  


The white paper will be one topic at major meeting of New Democracy in Washington Thursday, “Big Ideas for a Big Tent Party,” featuring a dozen members of Congress and other elected Democratic officials who will discuss new approaches to bringing entrepreneurial innovation and job creation to distressed communities, education, immigration and other major issues.

While many on the left refuse to admit it, the mishandling of energy and climate change issues by Democrats has played a major role in devastating national election losses in 1994, 2010 and 2016. These losses have helped relegate Democrats to minority status in U.S. House of Representatives for 20 of the last 24 years.  

Following the 2016 election, Democrats have fewer elected officials at the combined national, state and local level than any time since 1920.

Yet today, denial of climate change science facts and questionably coal-centric energy policies by President Trump and many Republicans have created a unique, new opportunity. Democrats must seize the day and put forward an economically powerful energy and climate protection agenda, one that can beat Republicans decisively at the ballot box and be effective and popular policy.

To begin with, Democrats must embrace, not inhibit, regional differences on energy and climate politics and create inclusive “big tent” policies. Especially in swing states and districts, candidates should articulate a distinctly Democratic brand on energy that combines the advanced renewable energy boom and the huge benefits of domestic oil and gas.

If they utilize the full range of the U.S. energy revolution — in renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon and electricity storage and shale gas and oil — Democrats can carve out an economically and environmentally robust platform. 

More broadly, national Democrats must stop outsourcing energy messaging to environmental advocates who are often painfully out of touch with the concerns of average Americans.

Especially in the key political moments that have defined their profile over the last decade — for example, President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline — Democratic leaders have appeared more preoccupied with gaining approval of environmental groups than the support of mainstream voters.  

And Democrats must reject the siren calls of oil and gas prohibitionists who do not represent the nuanced climate and energy views of most Democrats around the country. 

Natural gas, for example, provides reliable base-load electricity with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal and none of its mercury and other pollutants. Combined-cycle natural gas plants are also uniquely compatible with wind and solar energy, unlike coal or nuclear plants.  

But industry would be wise to work with Democrats to create reasonable regulations of methane emissions that can increase gas yields, improve taxpayer returns on public lands and cut emissions of this powerful greenhouse gas. 

Meanwhile, Democrats should push back against Republican propaganda that Democrats are against responsible oil and gas development. The facts show emphatically otherwise. Under President Obama, U.S. gas production rose 34 percent and oil production an astounding 74 percent, both reaching all-time highs.

What’s more, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell more than 12 percent in those years due to Democratic-led policies on auto, appliance and building efficiency and incentives for clean energy sources like solar, wind and natural gas. 

Yet, Democrats in 2016, beginning with presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on down, did not articulate this compelling vision of renewable energy, advanced technology and American natural gas and oil together. 

It’s increasingly clear that Democrats alone have a serious policy agenda to address climate change. But they must frame climate change as a here-and-now economic and security problem for average Americans.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and other severe weather events made worse by warming temperatures, Americans around the country recognize that climate change impacts are already huge and growing.

In fact, the total cost of extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change was more than $300 billion and 360 lives lost for 2017 alone. 

Industry costs are rising, too. The oil and gas industry on the Gulf Coast, and especially vulnerable refineries and ports, faces billions in additional costs, some borne by consumers but others by taxpayers as the industry receives federal funding to rebuild this infrastructure.  

Democrats must create a “big tent” energy and climate platform that can broadly appeal to voters around the country, not just on the coasts. That’s how they will win back the capacity to deal with our serious energy opportunities and climate challenges.

Paul Bledsoe is a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute and lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He was a staff member at the Senate Finance Committee and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Scott Pruitt

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