How to keep your seat as a pro-renewables Republican

Source: Emily Holden, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 17, 2016

CHICAGO — Kansas state Rep. Tom Sloan is the rare Republican who voices some support for the Obama administration’s climate rule and still wins elections.

The moderate from a split district in Douglas County has held the seat since 1995. Before that, he also served as a chief of staff to leaders in the Kansas Senate.

His district, which includes the college town of Lawrence, is about one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third independent, he said. Voters there have re-elected him for 11 terms, including in 2014, when he faced a GOP challenger who criticized his opposition to repealing renewable energy standards.

Sloan has said he supports the Clean Power Plan “for the most part.” Whether the rule survives the courts or not, he believes U.S. EPA will follow through with its authority to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector.

A former political science professor at Kansas State University, he has also worked as the executive director of Western Resources Inc. and a government affairs representative for Getty Oil Co. He is active with multiple interstate organizations of energy officials.

He sat down with ClimateWire on a bus ride to tour the decommissioning process at the Zion nuclear power plant north of Chicago during a summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures last week. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In your view as a lawmaker, does energy and environment policy become a campaign issue because industry interests push it or because voters care about it?

It’s both. And I’m speaking from my experience in Kansas and my conversations with legislators across the country. Kansans really don’t care whether there are gas pipelines built to New England. Hydraulic fracturing is not an issue in Kansas because we’ve been doing it since 1948. But we do understand that it’s an issue in New York. That’s not going to impact my election. … The issues are local, and the involvement has to be targeted to that local issue, but within a larger context.

The Wind Coalition endorsed my re-election just before the primary election. They helped out by saying I support renewable energy. That resonates with my voters, the ones in the university community that are therefore greener than other parts of the state.

You generally support the Clean Power Plan. How fast do you think the sector can shift away from fossil fuels and toward zero-carbon power? Why do policymakers in some states think they can’t transition as quickly as we’ve seen in other states?

When I was on the Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee, one of the things I repeatedly harped on with my conversations with the agency staff as well as within our policy recommendations was that the department must do a better job communicating the value of their demonstrational pilot projects or the national lab research projects so that a regulator or a policymaker in Kansas can say, “Oh, there were some valuable lessons learned in Kentucky.” … What we too often find is that regulators and policymakers say, “If we didn’t find it, it’s not relevant. It’s not true for us.”

For most of us, we don’t want to follow the California example — most of them not even knowing what the California actions are. But they know that one thing California did is they froze rates at one point in time and were suddenly confronted by a situation where the utilities said, “We’ve got to catch up on our investment,” and so rates skyrocketed.

Secondly, I think too often the special interests get locked into protecting their segment. … It’s “how do I sell more of my product?”

I think that we have too few people, and you as an individual, and journalists and your publication and some others try to educate on relevance, but the problem is that [the subject is] so big and you’re not reaching enough folks to really get an understanding.

Grid operators often stress the need for a diverse fuel mix for the power sector. Is that appreciated by most state lawmakers? Why do many push for particular sources of electricity?

Most state legislatures are part-time. Kansas is 90 days. A lot of them are plus or minus 30 days of that. You have very few that are full-time. … So you have therefore very few legislators who have the interest or the ability to stay engaged on energy issues.

The second factor is that even in your full-time legislatures, there are very few legislators who want to delve in-depth into the interconnectedness of the energy sector. … There are very few people in the legislature who will see the full range of issues around any one subset of the questions, much less the larger issue.

Has that changed as the energy sector has undergone rapid change?

It hasn’t changed, in my opinion. You still have very few people who understand the big picture and the long-term picture.

Do you see more corporate interests leading the dialogue about the nation’s energy future?

Sure. If you’re a public official, you have been contacted by your local electric or natural gas utility. And so you tend to believe them because they’ve talked with you, they’ve made campaign contributions to you. So when there’s an issue, the inclination is to turn first to them. It’s “What’s that other guy saying? He’s from out of town, out of state, out of the region.” There’s a lack of [objective information]. That’s why I’ve argued that the DOE, especially the laboratories, need to be giving a good housekeeping seal of approval to information.

You get the clean coal folks who are saying, “With the right investments, we can burn more coal, we’ve got hundreds of years of supply.” At the other end, you’ve got the gas industry saying, “But we’re 50 percent less carbon emissions, so do away with coal and use us.” And you’ve got the nukes that are saying, “We don’t emit.” And all the renewable people and the demand management folks. And we have very few voices that are being heard saying, “No, the issue is how do you have a reliable and responsible and affordable mix of energy supply and that mix also has to be demand management.”

Earlier this week at the NCSL meeting, the CEO of Commonwealth Edison painted a picture of a future where customers have great control over what kind of power they consume and how much they pay for it. Do you see that happening?

The public just knows they can turn the light switch on and electricity’s there. They don’t know where it’s coming from. They do want more renewable energy, but in a lot of ways that’s an amorphous desire, because they don’t understand how many wind farms or solar farms you need in order to have non-intermittent supplies.

What do you say to clean energy advocates who want 100 percent renewable power in the next couple of decades?

If an environmental group or the clean coal people or you name the group takes a non-scientific or non-technologically capable position and says, “This is what we have to do,” when it’s discredited, then everything they say is discredited, and therefore they are less effective as an organization and an advocate.

Do conservative lawmakers need political cover to support greener energy?

Yes. Legislators, because they’re up for election every two to four years, and for many of them they don’t have a background in the technologies or energy industry, they do look for simple answers, and they look to someone to whom they can point, which is one of the reasons why the local utilities have so much influence.

That’s one of the things that the (NCSL) Energy Supply Task Force tries to do. We put out publications that again say, “This is what a state is doing. Other states are doing this, but they’re looking at the same issue with a different perspective. Pick what works for your state, but you’ve got legitimacy here.”

Have you seen attacks from industry groups, as a moderate Republican who acknowledges climate change and supports renewable power?

I’ve had that, but I’m knowledgeable enough, veteran enough and I suppose trusted enough that I’ve been able to overcome that opposition.

I was actually challenged by former [Democratic Kansas] Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She denied a permit for a coal plant down in western Kansas. I supported that because it would have built transmission lines to Colorado that would have been able then to move larger amounts of Kansas wind power to the Western market. … The coal industry and the union people all supported me. The governor opposed me, and she put a lot of money into my opponent’s campaign. But the issue for me was if you want to have more wind power and we want to have solar development, eventually you’ve got to be able to move it.

In candidate forums, I had an opportunity to say, “Look at the larger picture.”

Is it becoming easier for Republicans in some regions to support wind power and tout the jobs created?

Yes. And it’s fine for a state like Michigan to say they want to develop their renewable resources. But if it’s going to cost 14 cents a kilowatt and you can buy High Plains wind for 2 cents and move it for 2 cents, yes, build some locally so you can say, “This is jobs, this is economic development. I’m committed to Michigan.” At the same time, you’ve got to manage electric rates.

You’ve said before you think it’s important for people to understand utilities are still working on the Clean Power Plan even if politicians say state agencies are not. Why is that?

The public needs to understand that there is a commitment to having clean air and environment … and that the utilities are not necessarily the bad guys and there are ways to mitigate any necessary increase in electric rates to reflect the new construction that’s needed.

How is the presidential race affecting conversations at the local level about energy policy?

I find that one of the candidates is tending to polarize the discussion about energy policy more than the other. To say we’re going to revitalize the coal industry — unless he’s willing to invest an awful lot into research for carbon capture and sequestration and such or coal gasification and again sequestration — is simply, again, polarizing across the country across sectors. I’m not saying that the other candidate is doing a superb job of not doing that.

I would look for more discussion about the need for all sorts of energy and that the mixes will vary from state to state, region to region, but that we have to focus on being environmentally responsible. But it has to be reliable, resilient, affordable.

Should energy policy in the United States be driven from the national or state level?

While I have bemoaned, and many others have, that we do not have a national energy policy, in a lot of ways, we have a de-facto energy policy. The courts are helping federal and state agencies move toward what the public is wanting to have happen. Is it as comprehensive and laid out and clear as I’d like? No.

I think you have to have a national objective. … To go back to the Clean Power Plan, states and utilities in those states will be able to trade with other states. That to me makes a lot of sense. Whether we do a cap and trade or not, it’s the idea that utilities already are experienced in terms of being able to buy and sell emissions credits. And so we move toward an objective of having less pollution, less emissions, but we’re allowing flexibility in terms of how it’s achieved.