The November election will be played out along all the usual social memes – from gay marriage, racism and immigration to the “war against women.” But what may determine the outcome revolves around one key economic issue: energy.
This has all come to a boil now as President Obama has backed an Environmental Protection Agency effort to accelerate tougher emissions standards, something that could shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants and slow fossil fuel development across the country.
The energy issue has become in our era what tariffs were in the 19th century: an increasingly insurmountable partition that separates Americans by region and class and which, ultimately, touches on the long-term economic trajectory of the country.
Of course, we have always had politics over energy – given regional variations in sources and kinds of supplies – but, until recently, both parties generally favored developing more oil and natural gas, largely because of the associated high-wage employment growth and potential for reducing the nation’s trade deficit. Now, energy increasingly has become a deeply partisan issue, with Democrats largely in opposition to fossil-fuel development and Republicans, fairly predictably, in support.
Reflecting this trend has been the rise of opposing sets of contributors whose primary concerns are wrapped around energy. On the Republican side, energy industry contributors, including the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, have become increasingly dominant. More than 90 percent of campaign donations from the oil and gas industries in 2012 went to Republicans.
At the same time, environmentally focused Democratic contributors, led by hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer, have made being anti-fossil-fuel de rigueur for most candidates in the party. Steyer and his allies have become the favorite place to go for cash for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats.
The Geography of Energy
The most-evident division – and most politically relevant – is geographic. A huge swath of the country, mainly along the Gulf Coast, Texas and the Great Plains, where shale-oil production has grown fourfold since 2007, is enjoying an energy boom that has created a surge in other high-wage, blue-collar fields such as manufacturing and construction. With the delays in approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline and looming new EPA emissions standards, Democratic senators and candidates from these states are, understandably, trying to distance themselves from their party’s increasingly anti-fossil-fuel policies.
More significant, over time, may be how energy plays out in the country’s major political battleground, the rust-belt states. Most of these states are highly dependent on coal for electricity, and some, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, are seeking to develop new oil and gas finds. Policies that limit fossil-fuel development, may prove a tough sell in some districts and could cost the Democrats several additional Senate seats.
In contrast, the most fervent support for strict climate-change legislation comes mostly from states – notably, the Northeast – that produce little in the way of energy and use relatively little carbon to power their economies. These states need less power than other areas as they already have deindustrialized and have very little population growth.
Two other ultrablue bastions, California and the Pacific Northwest, also advocate a green energy position. The Northwest relies largely on hydro power for its robust industrial sector, lessening dependence on carbon-based energy for electricity. California, itself rich in fossil fuels, largely disdains its resources, and its leaders prefer, for ideological reasons, to subsidize expensive renewable energy. Roughly one-fourth of all energy used in California comes from out of state, much of it from coal. But since this “dirty” power comes from elsewhere, the progressives in places like Hollywood and Silicon Valley can still feel good about our state’s “enlightened” policies, whatever their real effect.
The Class Divide
Historically, Democrats have been big supporters of expanding the energy sector, which includes such things as dams, nuclear power plants and pipelines. But the growing influence of the green movement has reversed that. Green policies are widely embraced by largely Democratic crony capitalists in places like Silicon Valley. They also enjoy almost universal support in academia, where boycotts of fossil-fuel companies are increasingly common. The media, too, is an ally, as is the predictably progressive entertainment industry.