Putting the ‘conserve’ in ‘conservative,’ Republican-leaning enviros gather in Harrisburg

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A right-leaning organization is in Harrisburg this week to try and put a new, conservative face on green energy policies.

The Pennsylvania Conservative Environmental Forum, or PennCEF, is meeting in a downtown Harrisburg hotel, where it’s convened some sitting state lawmakers, one former GOP governor in Tom Ridge, and industry representatives, with the goal of getting the base on board with environmental issues — especially renewable energy development.

The group’s executive director, Chad Forcey, told the Capital-Star on Monday that green energy has been a victim of “polarization.”

The two major parties have carved out pet issues for themselves, Forcey said. While Republicans may have claimed national security, for example, Democrats have claimed the environment as their own.

“It shuts off one side of the aisle from hearing the full debate,” Forcey said.

That doesn’t mean the plan is to beat the drum on climate change, however. By instead pressing a message of jobs, economic growth, and national security, Forcey said wind and solar energy could be seen as viable by even the most skeptical rural voter — or their lawmaker.

“If we want more renewables, we need to reach these folks where they’re at. And climate change isn’t going to do that right now,” Forcey said. “We’re not going to change that, but we can change is the perception of the technologies themselves.”

Forcey added that, in a free market, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal could and would beat fossil fuels.

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of American adults think the government is doing too little to combat climate change — a result owning much to a heavy skew among Democrats.

Nine in ten Democrats say that the government should do more about global warming, but just a fewer than than four in ten Republicans say the same.

It’s also an ideological split within the GOP itself, where 65 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans think there should be more climate policy, compared to 24 percent of conservative Republicans.

The divide also has a generational dimension — more than half of millennial Republicans think the government should do more about climate change.

In some ways, Forcey actually sees the Green New Deal as a boon for his cause. While he doesn’t support it, Forcey said that selling “very specific, pro-growth policies” around wind and solar is easier when progressives combine “socialism and identity politics” with energy policy. 

“We believe that is going to turn off as many voters as it’s going to turn on,” Forcey said. “We’re trying to reach the ones who hear that and say ‘what the hell are they doing?’”

A poll released last month from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 69 percent of Pennsylvania swing voters supported the Green New Deal. 

“That’s an interesting number,” Forcey responded, who cited “different surveys” with different conclusions.

The group also had some political movers to emphasize the point. 

At a Harrisburg reception Monday night, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, put personal stakes on environmental action.

“As someone who suffers from asthma, I think a lot about clean air a lot,” Cutler said. 

He advocated for more “independent voices” to be heard, while pointing to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a green priority he could get behind even as a rural Republican.

New technology that could provide a “two-fer”, such as collecting electricity from bacteria that consume clean up wastewater, should be looked at, according to Cutler.

Environmental and energy issues have often been at the top of the agenda this year, including some tight votes and vocal fights. But few bills have yet to reach Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Some green skirmishes this year have included an advancing tax credit to expand petrochemical production to the horror of state environmentalists, and a failed push to subsidize the nuclear industry. 

While Cutler’s rural Lancaster County district abuts a nuclear plant — York County’s Peach Bottom facility — he never gave his full-throated endorsement to a bill to provide state assistance for nuclear plants. The plan was estimated to cost half a billion dollars each year for ratepayers.

Republicans in both chambers have also made their perennial push to ease the state regulatory regime, once again sparking heavy lobbying from conservatives in both chambers.

Meanwhile, bills to aid green energy solutions have had mixed results. Pressure for a bill to allow jointly owned solar energy projects is hefty, but hasn’t yet borne fruit.

House Republicans also torpedoed a Democratic bill to charge electric vehicle drivers a flat fee for their mileage by increasing the price tag by $100. In the Senate, the upper chamber passed a bill to increase electric vehicle infrastructure, but it still awaits House action.

Cutler also raised eyebrows among environmentalists by appointing Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, a noted climate skeptic, to the state’s Climate Change Advisory Committee last week.