North Carolina clean energy philanthropist Jay Faison has his work cut out for him. His grand design for persuading Republican Senators and House members to support clean energy policies that enable markets and promote innovation is noble in its pursuit.
But the harsh realities in this era of increasingly partisan politics in Washington mean it may be a long time, make that a very long time, before his gallant efforts begin to pay dividends that his ClearPath Foundation, lobby group and super PAC can claim some of the credit for.
Faison (pronounced FAY-son) is quick to cite public opinion polls showing as many as 72% of Republican voters favor job-creating energy technologies that are cleaner and safer than fossil fuels. But most conservative lawmakers in a position to move legislation are still beholden to fossil fuel interests. And they are not about to give up their positions of power and the campaign contributions that come with them.
So what is Faison to do? The short answer is: show elected officials with open minds that clean energy, with a focus on innovation and free markets, can be conservative; then build support incrementally.
“It’s not that hard to focus members on this issue,” Faison told a media briefing in Washington earlier this week. “I’m a pragmatist. There has to be (room for) compromise.”
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge ClearPath faces.
Faison is quick to distinguish what his three ClearPath organizations (see below) are, and what they are not.
- ClearPath Foundation: 501(c)3 non-profit – For educating the public about conservative clean energy
- Clear Path Action Fund: 501(c)4 non-profit – Lobbying for specific legislation, donors are not disclosed
- ClearPath Action: 527 “Super PAC” – Independent campaign expenditures that support candidates without any coordination
First, Faison and his allies refuse to work with Democrats. Second, the candidates they seek to work with don’t have to acknowledge climate is changing, even in the face a serious threats linked to global warming such as rising sea levels, warming global temperatures and fracking’s harmful methane emissions.
Third, the ClearPath team will look for candidates in the political “middle,” as Faison puts it. That’s where he sees a “vacuum” that ClearPath will strive to fill, supporting vulnerable Republicans who are willing to speak on an energy issue.
Future display advertisements, captured above, are four examples of what ClearPath is scheduling for media inside Washington’s “Beltway” and in key outlets beyond.
“It’s a very lopsided debate now . . . I’m seeing a lot more openness to this,” he said.
Where that openness is materializing Faison would not say. He did cite a push by New York Congressman Chris Gibson who, along with 12 Republican colleagues, recently introduced a resolution“that recognizes the impact of climate change and calls for action to reduce future risk.”
Something else Faison is not prioritizing – which might surprise some would-be allies – is solar energy. Although it’s booming in his home state, Faison says solar energy “has its limits.” He says it’s too expensive to make a significant and consistently reliable contribution to the power grid, at least until energy storage systems are a lot less expensive than they are now.
What Faison said he will focus his current 10-member team and its newly-opened Washington office on are at least three bills awaiting action in Congress. Each bill has a chance to pass before the current 2015-1016 session ends in December, if not before Election Day:
- The Senate energy bill, formally known as The Energy Policy and Modernization Act of 2015;
- The Nuclear Innovation and Capabilities Act; and
- The Carbon Capture Improvement Act of 2015.
Asked if he might try to make a difference in the race for the White House, Faison early on supported South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham. He signaled some hope this week for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who, while he lags behind Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, has shown some life as the Ohio primary approaches. That said, Faison is quick to acknowledge: “I’m not a big enough dog in that fight” to make a difference.
The PAC’s near-term focus for this election cycle will be on what he termed “secondary-market congressional races.” He wouldn’t elaborate, except to acknowledge ClearPath, for now, can only aspire to do so much as a “one-trick pony.”
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider, who worked for cleaner energy policies while representing Rhode Island in Congress from 1981 through 1990, questioned Faison at the media briefing about ClearPath’s true motives.
“I was enthused initially when I learned a Republican would advocate for cleaner energy,” Schneider said later. “But my perception now is that he’s providing political cover for Republicans who are willing to back his technologies. If he wants innovation, government can and should play a role there. But Republicans traditionally don’t want the government picking winners; they want that left to the marketplace. That part of his message is duplicitous to me.”
Sam Thernstrom, the Executive Director of the Energy Innovation Reform Project, an allied non-profit in Washington, disagreed.
“I don’t think Jay is ruling out any role for government policy,” Thernstrom said. “He’s trying to promote a political and cultural evolution . . . thinking constructively about how policies can work. He wants to make clean energy cheap enough to compete with traditional sources. It’s a pragmatic appeal to mainstream conservatives.
“His innovation-focused agenda is the real solution to climate change,” Thernstrom added. “Making clean energy price-and-performance competitive is the key to scaling these technologies in global markets at the level that will actually make a difference.”
Faison expressed frustration with what he terms are “57 different pathways” to re-licensing a nuclear reactor. Reminded by this writer of the complicated past nuclear must deal with, both in the U.S. and abroad, Faison demonstrated he’s thought at great lengths about it.
How he works through the bureaucracy and the layers of regulations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is a huge undertaking. One has to wonder if ClearPath’s policy chief, Rich Powell, and the newly-added lead for ClearPath’s Washington, DC office — Zak Baig — can make much, if any, progress on that front.
“To think that we solve our environmental challenges without nuclear I think is naïve,” Faison said. “I’m not an expert, but I’ve dug in enough to know we really need to roll up our sleeves and solve these problems.” For his complete response about nuclear go here on YouTube.
To get the ClearPath message(s) out, the PAC’s initial war chest is a relatively modest $1.5 million. Faison said he’s aiming to have $5 million in a dedicated war chest soon.
Share your thoughts with a comment on how you think these messages will play in helping focus Republican support for cleaner energy.