Even as billions of dollars in new clean energy investments surge into Republican leaning communities around the country, state and federal GOP officials are hardening their resistance to efforts to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
That stark contrast has dashed a central hope and expectation among environmentalists: the belief that more economic opportunity in red places would mean less political opposition from Republicans to the transition toward a clean energy economy that scientists say is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic global climate change. The persistence of GOP opposition to that transition underscores the limits of economic incentives to overcome ideological inclinations – and points toward years of pitched partisan conflict that could make it virtually impossible for the US to set a consistent course on climate policy.
This dynamic was encapsulated last week when virtually every House Republican voted, in the party’s debt ceiling plan, to repeal the clean energy incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act Democrats passed last year, even though those incentives have already triggered investments in 72 Republican-held districts, including over two dozen districts that have received massive investments of $1 billion or more in new plants or expansions of existing facilities. It’s also apparent in decisions by Republican state attorneys general from states that are among the top beneficiaries of new clean energy investments and jobs to launch a flurry of lawsuits and other legal proceedings against proposals from President Joe Biden’s administration to speed the transition toward a low-carbon economy.
This opposition contravenes the traditional assumption that politicians almost always support the economic interests creating opportunity for their constituents. With growing boldness, Republicans and conservative activists are framing defense of fossil fuels and skepticism of clean energy alternatives as a form of culture war – with the transition to wind, solar and electric vehicles taking its place alongside transgender rights, “woke” indoctrination in the classroom or restrictions on gun ownership as an example of “coastal elites” trying to erase traditional American values.
In opposing measures to promote clean energy even in places benefiting from new investments to produce it, “Republicans believe – and the next election will help us see whether this is a good strategy or not – that culture war is going to be better to help them win than talking about jobs and the economy,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Program on Climate Change Communication at Yale University.
In all these ways, climate change has become another fissure along the central fault line in modern American politics. Like attitudes toward demographic and cultural change, perspectives on shifting the nation’s energy mix from its historic reliance on fossil fuels toward low-carbon alternatives now pit the Democratic “coalition of transformation” that largely embraces the way America is changing on every front against the Republican “coalition of restoration” that resists it.
For many Republicans, the Inflation Reduction Act’s sweeping provisions to encourage carbon-free energy sources aren’t “a bipartisan domestic energy agenda,” even though those incentives are channeling substantial jobs and investment to red places, said Robert McNally, a Republican energy consultant and former White House energy adviser for President George W. Bush. “This is a left wing, coastal ‘let’s change the world by having the federal government intervene at a time of high inflation kind of thing.’ When a Republican member does the pros and cons, it’s not like they don’t see the pros, but they see a lot of cons.”
Republican-leaning states, as I’ve written, are generally more integrated into the existing fossil fuel economy than blue-leaning places. Trump won 20 of the 21 states that emit the most carbon from their energy sector per each dollar of economic activity, mostly states between the coasts that are either big producers of fossil fuels (Wyoming, West Virginia, Texas) or big consumers of it to power robust agricultural and manufacturing sectors (Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana). Biden in turn won 19 of the 21 states with the least emissions, most of them coastal states that produce little oil, gas or coal and have transitioned more rapidly into the post-industrial economy of services and high-tech jobs, such as Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and California. Representation in the House and Senate, and control of state governments, follow these same tracks, with Republicans dominating the high-emitting states and Democrats dominating those with lower emissions. Oil and gas companies now routinely direct about four-fifths of their campaign contributions toward Republicans in Congress.
But the energy transition now underway is remaking this picture. Red places are among the clear winners in the emerging clean energy economy. Of the five states that produced the most wind-generated electricity in 2022, according to federal statistics, four are solidly red: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas; Illinois is the sole exception. Big solar generating states include Texas and Florida, as well as Arizona, Georgia and Nevada – places where Republicans control the state legislature, the governorship or both.
The Inflation Reduction Act that passed last year on a party line vote is further diffusing these opportunities, though no Republican legislators in either the House or the Senate voted for it.
Overall, as of March 31, companies have announced “191 new clean energy projects in small towns and bigger cities nationwide totaling $242.81 billion in new investments,” according to a recent report by the environmental advocacy group Climate Power. Those investments are projected to create some 142,000 jobs, the group calculated. Of the 10 states that have received the most announced clean energy projects, the group found, only two are safely Democratic (New York and California.) The rest are either battleground states (Michigan, Arizona and Georgia) or Republican-leaning (Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee).
The red tilt on investment is similarly pronounced at the congressional district level. In another study, Climate Power found that over half of all the new clean energy projects announced since the bill’s passage have been located in Republican-held congressional districts. The Republican district projects account, stunningly, for nearly four-fifths of the total clean energy investments that have been announced. The group found that two dozen House Republicans hold seats where clean energy companies have committed to investments of $1 billion or more since the passage of the IRA. The district that has received the most investment is held by New York Republican Rep. Brandon Williams (whose New York seat is the site of a massive plant that will manufacture semiconductors for EVs) and the district projected to receive the most jobs is held by Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei (which has attracted four separate projects). A South Korean company is building a $2.5 billion solar panel manufacturing facility in the Georgia district of far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Many reasons may explain why so much of the new clean energy investment has flowed into red places. Most important may be that Republican states and districts tilt more toward rural areas where space for large manufacturing facilities is easier to acquire. In those states, taxes are typically lower and state regulations more lenient as well. Some companies are also attracted to the non-union environment in most red states.
Whatever the motivation for the companies, environmentalists have hoped that channeling more economic benefits from the energy transition into red places would soften the opposition of Republicans toward deemphasizing fossil fuels. The model some cite is how the spread of defense contracts across virtually every congressional district maximizes support for the Pentagon budget.
Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, sees that precedent as critical to sustaining a long-term federal effort behind promoting clean energy. “What we need it to become is the defense authorization act, where every single congressional district has a piece of it – and it can’t be undone and we are set on this path of reaching our goals because of how diffuse it is,” she says.
But establishing those political roots, she acknowledges, will take time, and in the near term, the torrent of new investment has not diminished Republican resistance. If anything, as Biden leans into measures to accelerate the energy transition, Republicans are stiffening their opposition.
“The harder one side pushes, the harder the other way the other side wants to push back,” said Heather Reams, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative group that supports action on climate change.
Last week, almost every House Republican voted for the sweeping bill to raise the debt ceiling that included the repeal of the extensive incentives in the IRA for both producers and consumers to shift to clean energy sources. Earlier this year, every House and Senate Republican, under an act allowing Congress to challenge federal regulations, voted to overturn a Department of Labor rule that would allow pension fund managers to consider so-called ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) goals in making investment decisions – which is considered one important way to encourage more investment in green industries.
Biden vetoed that change, but a coalition of Republican state attorneys general are still seeking to block the regulation in court. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 GOP presidential candidate, recently organized a coalition of 19 Republican governors to fight such ESG measures, which he derides as “woke capitalism.”
West Virginia’s Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has hinted that when the federal Environmental Protection Agency completes its proposed fuel economy regulations requiring a rapid shift toward electric vehicles, GOP AGs will sue to overturn that, too. No one would be surprised if such a coalition of Republican-controlled states sues as well to block the regulations the Biden EPA is developing to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. (Such a coalition successfully sued to block former President Barack Obama’s regulations on the same topic.) And it seems inevitable that whenever the EPA completes both its fuel economy and power plant regulations that congressional Republicans will attempt to override them as well. From Republicans, predicts McNally, there will be “complete and total opposition on all fronts” to the coming Biden climate regulations. “It will be kitchen sink – everything will be going at it.”
Reams is cautiously optimistic that if Republicans obtained unified control of the White House and Congress in 2025, they would preserve at least some of the IRA’s clean energy incentives as part of an “all of the above” strategy to encourage more domestic production of both fossil fuels and low-carbon sources. But McNally, in a view shared from across the political spectrum by Lodes, predicts that if Republicans win unified control, they will “gut” the IRA clean energy incentives that they voted to eliminate last week. “Ninety-eight percent of this is going to go,” he says.