Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander this week unveiled a Republican alternative to the Green New Deal that puts the spotlight on federal clean energy research.
The plan comes as other conservatives on Capitol Hill have been talking up innovation as a solution to climate change—and as a counteroffer to the much-hyped Green New Deal.
Yet the focus on federal research makes perfect sense for Alexander, a moderate and a longtime proponent of a Department of Energy national laboratory in his home state.
Indeed, the Tennessee lawmaker—who plans to retire at the end of 2020—has for years advocated on behalf of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which houses scientific programs focused on transportation, energy storage, high-performance computing and much more.
Dubbed the “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy Independence,” Alexander’s vision would see a doubling of clean energy research funding across DOE’s Office of Science over the next five years (E&E Daily, March 26).
The plan specifically calls for addressing 10 “Grand Challenges”: advanced nuclear, natural gas, carbon capture, electric vehicles, green buildings, batteries, solar power, fusion, advanced computing and energy research funding.
All of those areas have found a home at Oak Ridge, which is the largest national lab in the DOE system by size and annual budget.
The connection to Oak Ridge is no secret. The name of Alexander’s plan, with its reference to the Manhattan Project, invokes the national lab’s role in the American-led effort to build nuclear weapons during World War II.
Oak Ridge played a pivotal role in the development of the atomic bombs that were ultimately dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unbeknownst to most Americans, a “secret city” was established in Oak Ridge to house workers on the project and their families.
“In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Sen. Kenneth McKellar, the Tennessean who chaired the Appropriations Committee, to hide $2 billion in the appropriations bill for a secret project to win World War II,” Alexander said in an issue brief.
“Sen. McKellar replied, ‘Mr. President, I have just one question: Where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?’ That place in Tennessee turned out to be Oak Ridge, one of three secret cities that became the principal sites for the Manhattan Project.”
Alexander drew a parallel to his own plan: “I returned to Oak Ridge recently to propose that the United States launch a new Manhattan project: a five-year project to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence.”
Alexander’s unwavering support for Oak Ridge—and national lab funding more broadly—has at times pitted him against President Trump.
In his fiscal 2019 budget proposal, Trump called for slashing the funding of DOE’s Office of Science, which supports research at all 17 national labs.
But Alexander, who leads the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, fiercely criticized the proposed cuts. When the Senate passed its fiscal 2019 Energy-Water legislation in June, the measure ended up including record funding for the Office of Science (E&E Daily, June 25, 2018).
“It is hard to think of a major technological invention since World War II that didn’t have some support from government-sponsored research,” Alexander said in a statement at the time.
Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget request, released earlier this month, again seeks to slash funding for DOE’s Office of Science by about $1 billion from current funding levels (Energywire, March 19).
Alexander’s plan comes as other Republicans on Capitol Hill have been touting innovation as an alternative to the Green New Deal resolution from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who once introduced a one-sentence bill to abolish EPA, is drafting his own resolution dubbed the “Green Real Deal” that emphasizes a “commitment to innovation,” according to a draft first obtained by Politico.
Amanda Garcia, a senior attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Tennessee office, acknowledged that the GOP is putting forth its own plans for addressing the climate crisis.
“I do appreciate Sen. Alexander affirming the principle that climate change is real and proposing a solution,” Garcia said. “And I think bits and pieces of it are valuable.”
But Garcia expressed concern that Republicans are focusing on forward-looking research into next-generation technologies, rather than on cutting carbon with tools that are already available.
“The important thing is to reduce carbon emissions now,” she said. “Focusing on longer-term research and development is kicking the can down the road at a time when we really need to be implementing the technologies we have.”
The Republican counteroffer came a day before the Senate voted down the Green New Deal resolution. Most Democrats voted “present” instead of “yes” to push back on what they saw as a political stunt by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) (see related story).
Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, for his part, expressed a willingness to partner with the Tennessee lawmaker.
“Hey, if calling it a ‘new Manhattan project’ instead of a ‘Green New Deal’ works for you, @SenAlexander, we’re down,” Saikat Chakrabarti tweeted Monday. “Want to work on it together?”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.