In the effort to reduce global carbon emissions, can conservatives and liberals ever agree? Rich Powell, executive director for ClearPath, a non-profit working to accelerate conservative solutions to climate change, maps out an energy future that focuses on innovation, markets, and global solutions. He discusses where the Left gets it wrong, what conservatives are doing right, and where both sides can agree.
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Hey everyone, it’s Beverly Hallberg. Welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women’s Forum where we talk with women and sometimes men about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Enjoy.
Hi, my name is Kelsey Bolar, I’m a Senior Policy Analyst here with Independent Women’s Forum. Today, I am joined by rich Powell, the executive director of ClearPath and ClearPath Action, the DC-based organizations advancing policies that accelerate breakthrough innovations to reduce emissions in the energy and industrial sectors. You’ve probably read Rich’s work which has been published in The Wall Street Journal, foxnews.com, Washington Examiner, TheHill and so forth. His name and his work is all over a number of national and regional publications. So Rich, we are very honored to have you on She Thinks today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me Kelsey, and to the Independent Women’s Forum. I’m a huge admirer of what you all do and really appreciate the time.
Well, we always appreciate having our male guests on our She Thinks podcast. So let’s get to it. If you watch some of the mainstream left-leaning news channels such as MSNBC and CNN, climate change is often uttered. A lot of times we’re told that because of climate change, the sky is falling, the world is ending, our children and grandchildren probably won’t survive. And then some people on the other side of the political spectrum, perhaps over on Fox News and other stations, tend to downplay the issue of climate change as a narrative for Democrats to advance a top-down government takeover of the economy. Tell us where your organization, ClearPath, stands on this issue and how you think is the correct way for Conservatives to approach it.
That’s a great question, Kelsey. So, here’s the thing. We think that climate change is real and that global industrial activity is the primary contributor to it happening, we think that there’s real risk there. And we think that the solution to this global problem is a global solution. So we think that clean energy technology needs to be made cheaper and more affordable and more reliable so that it can be used here in the United States and so the markets can take it up. And even more importantly, so that we can export it around the rest of the world. The rapidly developing world is actually where most of the emissions come from today and we’re certainly most of the emissions in the future will come probably. So the real challenge in all this is getting our clean energy technology out to the South Africas, the Nigerias, and Indias and Indonesias and Chinas of the world that are developing really rapidly. So we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make clean energy cheaper so that those markets are more likely to take it up themselves.
And in our view, that’s really a problem of innovation, right? We’ve had spectacular success in the U.S. in our energy innovation journey and that’s brought us everything from nuclear energy which is the most important source of clean energy in the U.S. today to natural gas which has totally changed the U.S. energy system over the past couple of years, the shale gas revolution, the hydraulic fracturing revolution, all the way to the newer technologies like solar panels, and windmills and ways to store energy for long durations. And so we really think it’s an energy innovation challenge, and that’s where we focus at ClearPath.
And help us with some of the terminology here which I can tell you firsthand experience has taken me some time to form a solid foundation. And when we hear global warming, climate change, carbon emissions, what exactly are we talking about? And how is that all different than just saying pollution or talking about plastic straws?
Yeah. This is a wild and complicated world. I think the first thing to think about is that the problem of climate change as we see it is really different than the problem of pollution. Pollution is when there’s some chemicals caused by industrial activity or something that are being released into the air or the water that we breathe in or ingest and that directly harms human health, right? That’s kind of traditional pollution. And so most of our environmental law, and no one wants pollution, right? Everyone wants pristine air, pristine water. We don’t want to go back to the era in the fifties and sixties when Lake Erie would occasionally catch on fire because there was so much stuff being dropped into Lake Erie. Nobody wants to not be able to see Pittsburgh because of all the black smoke from the industrial activity when you fly over Pittsburgh which is today kind of a beautiful sparkling city, right? Nobody wants to go back there.
Climate change is a really different challenge. It’s caused by a bunch of different gases that individually aren’t harmful for us to breathe in and breathe out. The biggest one is carbon dioxide. We all breathe in and breathe out carbon dioxide every day. It’s not a toxic chemical, it’s not a traditional pollutant. The challenge is that as carbon dioxide and a few other gases build up in the atmosphere, they have an effect which is often called a greenhouse effect and basically it means that the more light that hits the planet from the sun, a lot of that light is trapped in the atmosphere as heat in the same way that a greenhouse can stay warm in the winter, right? When the sun comes through the windows, even on a cold day outside.
And so this greenhouse effect is something that sort of can warm the planet. We say climate change because it warms the planet more in some places and less in others. And really just causes extreme weather, which is problematic for a bunch of different reasons. So the problem with all this is that basically everything we do in modern society releases these greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. So every time you get into your automobile, every time a steel plant somewhere else in the world rolls out steel which eventually ends up back in the United States as a car, or as a pipe, or as a hairdryer, basically everything releases these. And so when we think about reducing the problem with climate change, it does mean reducing the way we power our whole economy and make most of the things that we take for granted today.
And can you also explain the difference between clean energy and renewable energy and put into context the political divide there? Because we often hear the left want to emphasize renewable only versus clean energy technologies which encompass so much more.
Yeah, it’s a great question. So, you very often hear people saying, “Well, we need to go to 100% renewable energy,” and that sounds like a terrific goal. Renewable sounds nice, people like the idea of renewable energy. In my narrow little energy world, most people really don’t know what folks mean when they say renewable energy. Typically that means energy that’s capturing some kind of a natural flow out there. And the typical ones folks think of are sunlight or wind or the flow of a river or a tide, or the natural heat that bubbles up from underground, so geothermal energy. And so the energy sources there would be solar and wind energy, and hydro and geothermal energy are typically thought of as the renewable resources along with a few others.
A lot of times folks will try to argue that we can go to a hundred percent renewable energy. And typically they actually just mean wind and solar when they say that. The problem is, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, and electricity is very, very different than any other service or commodity in our economy. So electricity is not something that we really can store it. It’s totally different than milk, right? Milk is produced in one place, it goes into a cold storage and cold storage trucks. It’s gradually trucked to some other place, it’s put into a cold case in a freezer. There’s a lot of time between the production of a gallon of milk and the consumption somewhere else and we’ve developed a really sophisticated system for storing it all along the way so that we can produce milk at one time and consume it at a different time.
Electricity is really different. It moves down copper wires at the speed of light, which is sort of remarkable to think about. So it basically means that if you want to consume electricity right now to power a computer monitor, or to turn out a home appliance, or to turn your lights on at home, an equal amount of electricity needs to be being produced somewhere else at literally exactly that same instant. Because it then travels at the speed of light from whatever that power plant was to wherever you’re using the electricity. And that’s totally unlike really anything else in our economy and it makes generating electricity and balancing, what we call balancing the grid, because it always has to be held in this dynamic balance, a really challenging thing. And so if your wind stops blowing or your sun stops shining, and you wanted to consume that electricity in that moment, you’re out of luck, unless you got a way to store the energy in between.
And right now, we don’t have good ways to store energy for more than a couple of hours at a time. And eventually we’ll need to develop technologies that can store energy for really long periods of time. But those are still a little bit far out. And it all means that we actually need a whole bunch of other technologies that are also clean that can respond what we say flexibly, so they can ramp up and down very, very quickly. And the other technologies that can do that, that don’t have greenhouse gas emissions, and can respond and produce electricity whenever we need to are things like nuclear energy, or continuing to use fossil fuels like coal and natural gas and oil to produce electricity, but doing it with equipment that captures the emissions so the greenhouse gas emissions don’t get up into the atmosphere and [inaudible 00:11:15] few other things.
And so there’s a big frankly, pretty partisan fight over, do you want to go a hundred percent renewable and just use that wind and solar and try to do all kinds of crazy things to keep the grid in balance, or are you willing to accept a number of these other technologies alongside wind and solar and go with a clean energy future? That’s certainly where we are. And I think a lot of the folks that have really, really deeply analyzed the energy grid and kind of looked at the energy future would tell you, the best way to get a clean grid, but also to preserve the affordability of the grid and most importantly to preserve the reliability of the grid so that we don’t have events like we had in Texas recently where the grid failed. That was the fault of a lot of different things. But we’ve all seen the consequences of non-reliable grids.
If we want to keep things reliable and affordable and make them clean, we need a portfolio of a bunch of different clean energy technologies including some of these other things like advanced nuclear, like fossil fuels with carbon capture, like hydropower and geothermal and energy storage. And so ClearPath spends a lot of time working on those technologies that are both flexible and that would produce a clean grid.
Yeah. It’s frustrating to watch the Biden Administration, many on the left who are climate activists focus on renewables only as the solution to climate change, often encompasses more regulations, higher taxes, and mandates inside the U.S., equipping every American with solar panels or an electric car whose parts and batteries are made with dirty coal or slave labor over in China. There seems to be a lot of hypocrisy or just narrow mindedness not viewing this issue as the global issue that it is. So on that, no. Where is the Biden Administration going wrong in this approach and what is the GOP doing to counter that with global solutions?
Well, I mean, I think first and foremost, there’s been, in the early days of the Biden Administration, there was a lot of this kind of rule by executive order and a lot of them kind of going after symbolic things like shutting down the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have brought, frankly just would have replaced a lot of trains carrying oil into the United States from Canada which is our biggest trade partner. And frankly, an oil trade is a pretty dangerous thing that’s already coming in by trains. Instead, we’re going to do it on a pipeline. They were even proposing to power the pipeline with clean, renewable energy and still it’s shut down by Biden Administration as sort of a symbolic win for the environmental community. Definitely not a sort of pro-climate measure really and pretty divisive.
Similarly, they’ve decided that they’re going to stop or at least suspend new production of fossil fuels on U.S. federal lands. And that’s pretty problematic from our perspective. A lot of a clean energy future could actually continue using fossil fuels. Well, we have a virtually infinite amount of natural gas in this country. There are ways to use natural gas to produce energy in a clean zero-emission way with new technology and I’m really concerned about taking that option off the table if we say that we’re not going to produce any new fossil fuel resources on public lands. And so I think that there were some missteps there. I do think that Republicans are bringing to the table an increasingly comprehensive suite of solutions on this.
Just at the end of last year, Chairman Murkowski of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a number of other Republican senators led us through to the Energy Act of 2020 which is the largest energy and climate bill passed in more than a decade. He had great leadership there, I’ll give a shout out to the terrific female leadership there from Senator Murkowski. Senator Collins had the Better Energy Storage Technologies Act which is something to sort of set up a moonshot on developing that innovative energy storage technology as well. And so you had kind of good Republican leadership there at the end of last year, we got that done.
This year and this new Congress in the House, Leader McCarthy has actually just as of a couple of weeks ago, rolled out a pretty comprehensive clean energy and climate package which includes things like using natural climate solutions. So doing a global program of tree planting which would pull a lot of the CO2 back out of the air, that could be really helpful, and it could help people in conserving wild-lands and in helping working forests. You also have a lot of commitment to these clean or cleaner fossil fuel technologies and so there’s a lot of kind of leading incentives for carbon capture technology that were included in that rollout. So, I think conservatives are leaning into this with a message that’s focused on innovation, and on carbon capture, and on reforming permitting and getting government out of the way of clean energy development and on using natural climate solutions.
Yeah. From my perspective, Conservative lawmakers have certainly stepped up in the past couple of years in proposing very serious solutions and actually enacting them. As you mentioned, it’s interesting, you don’t hear them getting much of any credit for this in the media. The country, those on the Left claim to care so much about fighting climate change and yet they can’t share credit with the other side when we are able to find that rare common ground. Of the solutions that ClearPath support sound very reasonable, why are we now hearing reports of White House Environmental Justice advisors expressing opposition to clean forms of energy such as nuclear and carbon capture projects? And are you optimistic that ultimately we will be able to find bi-partisan solutions here?
Yeah. This is one that’s really kind of mystifying Kelsey, this research that the Environmental Justice Council released a report that frankly I think the administration is going to do its best to ignore because frankly, it goes against a lot of the Biden Administration has said about wanting to include all of the clean energy technologies in its plans. But this council basically said, you can’t cite anything they disagree with in any community that’s been labeled an environmental justice community. So that’d be a community that has more than a disproportionate share of pollution or of economic inequality in the past. And I think they really get it wrong. They completely disregard all the benefits that a community would see. If you go to a community that hosts a nuclear power plant which to some folks that don’t live around, it may seem scary, you won’t see better schools, you won’t see cleaner air, you won’t see a wealthier and urgent workforce anywhere in the country, right?
These are some of the best and highest paying jobs, there’s a fantastic tax base that supports thriving communities. These things are built in 10 years and then they run for 80 years. And then at the end of life, there’s another 10 years decommissioning. So it’s literally a century of clean, strong economic activity, terrific jobs all around one of these plants. And so this environmental justice community, workforce advisory group, maybe that’s just an ideological opposition to nuclear energy which kind of comes from a lot of the children of the seventies in there perhaps, children of the sixties and seventies that just have always been opposed to nuclear power because it was big, not really because it was not clean. And that has I think really unfortunately shaped the thinking there. I hope the administration doesn’t follow that guidance because it’s going to take a lot of great solutions off the table from which economically disadvantaged communities could really benefit if this kind of thing was cited there.
Absolutely. And to wrap things up, I think the thing I appreciate most about what your organization constantly emphasizes is the global aspect of this issue and how we can’t just solve climate change or reduce emissions here in the United States. We have to help other countries do the same. And in order for that to happen, we have to make these clean energy technologies economically viable for those countries to afford. Because if we don’t do something about China and India’s emissions, this problem will continue. Is there anything on the global front you want to say as we wrap this up?
Yeah. Well, I would just reiterate this point that this really is a global problem. And some folks look at that and say, “Well, it’s a global problem. There’s nothing we can do about it here in the United States.” And so we should just accept that this is going to happen or adapt to the changes. And we are going to have to adapt to some changes. But I do actually think there’s a lot that we could do. And I think are things that would also be good for U.S. competitiveness and national security. Just again, take nuclear energy for example. There’s not a question that more and more of the world is going to use nuclear energy, for powering countries all over the world have said that they want to use nuclear energy to power their grids, and there’s a lot of reasons to do that, clean air and clean energy being just one of them.
And so the question is not, are they going to use nuclear energy? The question is, are they going to use American-made technology with American-made expertise and economic benefits going to us and all of the non-proliferation benefits? And that’s the making sure that those technologies aren’t then used to produce weapons that would come from using American technology with American safeguards or controls. Or are they going to use Russian or Chinese technology which are the alternatives today. And let me tell you, Russia and China are out there in the world.
They’ve got designs, they’ve got financing, they’ve got expertise, they’ve got turnkey construction solutions, they’ve got security forces. They’ll run the things for you, for a century when you build these. And if we’re not out there actively using all the tools of American economic diplomacy, and export credit assistance, and making sure all of our regulations on the exports are keyed up to enable our firms to be out there on the world stage, not only are we missing an opportunity to deploy this terrific clean energy globally and all the economic opportunity that comes along with it, but we’re going to end up with a less safe world. Because we’re going to have more people more in the pockets of Chinese and Russian interests and potentially running technologies that don’t have the same non-proliferation controls as the ones that we would have. And so it won’t be as safe a world.
So that’s just one example of I think the ways that we can be really engaging in this globally and you could tell the same story about all kinds of other technologies from energy storage and the critical minerals that flow into it, or the use of fossil fuels around the world in a cleaner and cleaner way. We have a lot of tools that we’re not maximizing right now in U.S. policy to change that global picture.
I appreciate you taking the time to break down these very complex but important issues. Where can our listeners go to learn more about ClearPath and the solutions that you’re supporting?
We would love to see you at clearpath.org and you can sign up for our propaganda newsletters and we can keep you appraised of all of the developments that are happening in this conservative clean energy space.
Only the good kind of propaganda. Rich, thank you so much for joining us.
Only the good kind of propaganda. Thank you Kelsey, thank you to the IWF.