How Energy and Conservation Became Partisan Issues
The third in a weekly series of articles RCP is publishing through Election Day to explore policymakers’ decisions regarding this crucial sector of the economy.
In June 1987, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson gave a speech to California Sierra Club, the oldest chapter in that venerable organization. The speech wasn’t particularly memorable. A freshman Republican running for re-election, Wilson did what candidates do: He touted his record in hopes of an endorsement.
But a question from the audience that day was noteworthy. It turned out to be a harbinger of the hyper-partisanship that would soon overtake Washington, D.C., on conservation and energy—and almost every other issue. The man making the query was a conservationist from Sacramento named Ted Cobb.
“The Sierra Club has endorsed political candidates from both parties from all over the country, but in California we have had a great deal of trouble finding people in your Republican Party to endorse,” Cobb said. “Is that our problem or your party’s problem?”
This turned out to be the right question. The answer was in the process of revealing itself—both the Sierra Club and the GOP were partly to blame, and Democrats, too. Nearly three decades later, all Americans are paying the price.
“Who will control the flow?”
The Sierra Club’s agenda when it was formed in 1892 was to encourage the creation of national parks for the enjoyment of the general public. Its original mission statement actually included the phrase “to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast.”
Today’s Sierra Club can often be found fighting to keep wilderness areas inaccessible to the general public. Its current mission statement is explicitly political, with obvious partisan overtones. “We've made history,” it boasts, “by leading the charge to move away from the dirty fossil fuels that cause climate disruption and toward a clean energy economy.”
So what happened?
The American impulse to cut trees, mine for coal, channel the wind, dam rivers, and drill for oil—all in pursuit of energy—is older than the United States itself. So is the desire to preserve pristine forests and waterways in their wild state.
“Let us keep the New World new, preserve all the advantages of living in the country,” Henry David Thoreau wrote after ensconcing himself on Walden Pond. “In wildness,” he also wrote, “is the preservation of the world.”
Yet Thoreau’s modest cabin was built of wood from felled trees, which also fueled the fires that kept him warm in winter. The story of energy and the environment, in other words, has always been one of tradeoffs. For most of our history, Americans accepted this truth.
Logging was the first energy industry in America. European settlers cleared forests for farms and burned timber for cooking and heat. Coal came next. Discovered on the James River in Virginia by Huguenot settlers in 1701, it spawned this continent’s first commercial mines.
Two centuries later, on January 10, 1901, a crew of roughnecks manning a rudimentary derrick south of Beaumont, Texas, did what they’d been doing for a year: use their single drill to bore deeper into the Earth. The day would turn out differently than all the others, however, and nothing has been the same regarding how Americans think about energy and their environment.
The thrill over the Beaumont gusher rather quickly gave way to a more immediate concern. Yes, it was thrilling when the drill powered by a firewood-fed boiler reached 1,300 feet and mud bubbled up, followed by a gas explosion that sent chucks of bedrock and drilling equipment flying through the air, followed by a stream of black crude oil.
It was spectacular, really, and residents of the area flocked to the scene to watch it. They intuited rather quickly that it would change their economy for the better. But there was one immediate problem: No one knew how to cap the gusher, which was spewing 150 feet into the air the equivalent of 18,000 barrels worth of oil every 24 hours.
As it puddled around the field, a Dallas Morning News headline beseeched, “Want It Stopped: Reward Offered to Anyone Who Will Control the Flow!”
In that instance, the results of improperly handling a resource were on public display. But like the old dictum about watching laws and sausages being made, those involved in the energy sector have long tried to keep such details hidden from users.
It’s a natural impulse, but as Cornell University history professor Aaron Sachs explains, it had led over the years to a disconnect between energy producers and energy consumers. And it’s not new. On September 4, 1882, when Thomas Edison conducted his public demonstration with the electric light, he did so in a mahogany office at J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street headquarters.
“When he closed a switch shortly after the clock struck three, hundreds of his incandescent bulbs lit up simultaneously in a five-block radius all around him,” Sachs noted. “It seemed like a miracle to the gathered crowd; it seemed like magic.”
It wasn’t magic, it was technology—and not of the kind that the Sierra Club or anyone else today would call “clean energy.” What the New Yorkers who applauded Edison’s innovation did not see were six huge steam generators a few blocks away on Pearl Street. They were powered by huge loads of coal (dug out of faraway mountains, also out of sight). To hide the conduits for these generators, 18 miles of copper wire was laid in brick tunnels underground.
“Edison’s light bulbs lit up lower Manhattan—but simultaneously made labor invisible; it was hidden in the shadows,” Sachs wrote. “Energy had become the perfect commodity. All that people knew about electricity was that you could buy it—and that was all that mattered.”
If the rise of a dynamic energy sector posed political challenges, they were originally not partisan in nature. Pioneering conservationists from Theodore Roosevelt to California naturalist and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir were Republicans. Muir’s main battles in the late 19th century were with San Francisco Democrats who wanted to build a dam on the Tuolumne River, thereby flooding Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.
It was a bitter fight, to be sure, but not one conducted along party lines. Strong and intellectually honest arguments existed on both sides. Muir was speaking from the heart when he compared the splendors of Hetch Hetchy to those of the Sistine Chapel. But San Franciscans had experienced a crucible of their own—the 1906 earthquake that had set the city on fire—and never wanted to be without a dependable source of water again. In the end, the dam was built.
Although majorities of Americans cherish the environment and value readily available and reasonably priced energy, the elected officials, campaign activists and financial contributors who control our two major political parties portray it as a zero sum game. The Democratic Party of the 21st century has positioned itself as pro-environment and hostile to traditional energy. The Republican Party, meanwhile, is pro-fossil fuel and antagonistic toward environmental protection.
As American politics have polarized, similar dichotomies exist on a host of issues that, strictly on the merits, should not be partisan at all. The many reasons for such polarization include gerrymandered congressional districts that produce politicians more extreme than the general population, our shout-fest 24-hour cable news cycle that thrives on conflict, lawmakers who care more about re-election than governing, and a stranglehold of special interest groups on each party.
Once upon a time, academic theorists and a few political practitioners fantasized fondly about how much smoother politics would run if the political parties had more coherent philosophies. One of those politicians was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who once told White House aide Sam Rosenman, “We ought to have two real parties -- one liberal and the other conservative.”
Ten years later, the American Political Science Association produced a report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” arguing for the same thing. Eventually, such a system did evolve, but it hasn’t worked out the way the political scientists envisioned. Those being are squeezed out of policy-making are moderates—the vast plurality of Americans who want pristine national parks and plentiful and affordable energy.
“We finally got ideological purity, and it's a disaster for the country," says Sen. Angus King of Maine, an Independent. “You can’t solve problems this way.”
Naturally, each side blames the other.
“It’s a sad development,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, a liberal advocacy group that supports pro-environment elected officials. “I’ve worked on these issues for 40 years. The Clean Air Act of 1990 passed with over 400 votes in the House and nearly 90 votes in the Senate. It was a very bipartisan effort and we still live with the benefits of the Clean Air Act of 1990.”
“We know that in order to make progress, we have to have folks on both sides of the aisle supporting environmental measures,” added Karpinski, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July in support of Hillary Clinton. “Sadly, in the last 20 years we’ve seen a split and that has been driven by a couple things.”
The two factors he named were the rise of Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, which he said is populated by the global warming “denier” camp who “think climate change is a hoax.” The second factor he named was that gusher of campaign contributions that flows into GOP coffers from “the oil industry, the coal industry, the Koch Brothers.”
This is a valid point: Even before the Watergate scandal, good-government advocates were taught to “follow the money” in politics. But who really started this arms race? The answer is hardly clear-cut.
The 1988 California Senate race pit Republican Pete Wilson against Leo McCarthy, the Democratic lieutenant governor with a nondescript environmental record. Yet the Sierra Club endorsed McCarthy, as they did San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein two years later when she and Wilson squared off in the gubernatorial race.
It was a decision that dismayed many longtime Sierra Club members. In shunning Wilson for two San Francisco Democrats who had never made conservation a particular priority, the Sierra Club was untrue to its roots. In Pete Wilson, the Sierra Club had a loyal and longtime friend.
While in the state legislature, Wilson wrote California’s sweeping coastal protection act. As mayor of San Diego, he balanced development with open-space policies that preserved canyons and expanded parks. In Washington, he was instrumental in enactment of the gridlocked California Wilderness Act, which set aside 1.7 million acres for protection, while also leading efforts to protect the California coast from offshore drilling. Wilson even fought to give John Muir’s beloved Tuolumne River the “wild and scenic” designation that would protect it from future dams. In doing this, he took on a powerful Democratic member of the California congressional delegation.
John Muir would have been proud of Pete Wilson. The organization he helped found? Not so much. When Sierra Club leaders turned their back on an old ally, they were announcing to the world that they were, essentially, now an arm of the Democratic National Committee.
I covered Pete Wilson in those days, and I will never forget his dismay. “If the Sierra Club makes conservation a partisan issue, I think they’ll come to regret it,” he told me. “We all will.”