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John McHugh and George Pataki were architects of the national cap and trade system for fighting pollution. (File photos)
John McHugh and George Pataki were architects of the national cap and trade system for fighting pollution. (File photos)

GOP support for cap-and-trade erodes

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In this year's mid-term elections, environmental issues have largely taken a back seat to jobs and the economy.

But here in the New York and across the Northeast, one trend is changing the political landscape and threatening to dismantle a model project aimed to fight climate change.

Many Republicans in the region once backed climate change legislation, and embraced a policy known as cap-and-trade to reduce greenhouse gases and other kinds of pollution

But a lot of Republican candidates in the Northeast are now campaigning aggressively against the cap-and-trade.

As Brian Mann reports, they're following the lead of conservative party leaders in other parts of the country.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

When then-Republican congressman John McHugh from Upstate New York introduced an ambitious new national cap-and-trade bill in 2007 he was hoping to curb acid rain caused by coal burning power plants in the Midwest. 

He acknowledged at the time that he hadn’t given his own party leaders advance notice of the bill because he wanted to keep them from blocking it or watering it down.

"I didn’t want to give my good friend and my leader John Boehner any more lead time than was necessary, quite frankly," he said.

Boehner – who may be the next Republican House Speaker – comes from the coal-rich state of Ohio and has been a strong backer of the oil and gas industry.

 At the time, McHugh was blunt about the fact that Northeastern Republicans like himself often saw environmental issues very differently than their national party.

"John Boehner is a very able leader, very astute politically," McHugh said.  "However on specific issues, as a legislator, we don’t agree on a whole lot."

Nowhere was this tension more visible than on cap-and trade.  

Northeastern Republicans helped to invent and champion the policy, which sets broad limits on the amount of pollution.  Its an approach that can work for acid rain chemicals or greenhouse gases.

 A marketplace is then created so that clean companies benefit by selling pollution credits. 

 The idea is to offer market incentives that spark innovation, helping to cut emissions far more quickly and cheaply.

Before leaving office in 2009, McHugh was one of eight Republican in the country who voted in favor of a Democratic measure that would use the cap-and-trade strategy to reduce green house gases.  

But things have changed and the Republican running now for his old seat, Matt Doheny, sees this very differently, arguing during a debate last month that cap-and-trade is a terrible idea.  

"What it simply does is say everyone’s going to pay more for energy costs across the board," Doheny said.  "It’s going to hurt our productivity and growth right here in the United States."

Across the Northeast, the Republican support for cap-and-trade has eroded. 

In Connecticut, Senate Republican candidate Linda McMahon has made opposition to the measure a centerpiece of her campaign against Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

One of her advertisements describes cap and trade as "a new national energy tax."

In New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte says she’s not convinced global warming has been proved “conclusively” and she too opposes the cap-and-trade bill.   

"I wouldn’t support Waxman-Markey or this defacto energy tax, because essentially what it does, is it’s going to increase all our costs on businesses and homeowners," she said.

Jim O’Brien, executive director of Conservation New Hampshire, acknowledges that environmentalists have lost the support of many regional Republicans who they once viewed as allies.

"Here in New Hampshire, I mean we’re not kidding ourselves, the Republican Party platform has an action item in there to remove the state from RGGI," he said.

RGGI is a regional cap-and-trade carbon auction that was first proposed by George Pataki – then New York’s Republican governor – in 2003. 

It was organized in part with the help of two other Republican governors from Connecticut and Vermont.   

Supporters say that since 2008 the program has generated more than 729 millions dollars for alternative energy and efficiency programs without boosting utility rates. 

Despite that success, O’Brien says pressure is growing in New Hampshire to scrap the program.   

"I’ve also talked to many of our Republican Senators who say they’re disappointed in the party taking that stance because this is an important issue and an important program – and the state has seen tangible benefits from it," he added.

 A Republican lawmaker in New Jersey has also introduced legislation to pull that state out of the program.  

 And Maine’s Republican party platform calls for the party to ‘defeat cap and trade’ and describes global warming as a ‘myth.’

This trend in the Northeast away from support for cap-and-trade frustrates Rob Sisson, president of a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection, based in Michigan.

"Cap and trade was devised in the Reagan administration and then was later deployed by George HW Bush for the acid rain problem – so I mean, it’s a Republican solution, it’s a conservative solution," he argued.
Sisson says many moderates in the Northeast – who privately support climate change legislation – have been forced by the political climate to abandon cap-and-trade. 

"The rise of the tea party and conservative talk radio has interjected the specter of a third-party or a primary challenge," he said.  "So we’re seeing incumbents who have been good on our issues start moving to the right to fend off those challenges."

 Sisson says when rank-and-file Republicans learn more about cap-and-trade, they often support the policy.

 But Anthony Leiserowitz from the Yale Center on Climate Change Communication says supporters of cap-and-trade have done a ‘lousy’ job explaining how it works or why it’s effective.

"That has left a vacuum where the opponents of the bill thereby rushed in and labeled it as a cap and tax bill and have been now using it ever since to try to flog their political opponents." 

 Cap and trade is likely to remain a flash point on conservative talk radio and for many tea party activists.  Environmental groups and Republican moderates say they hope support for the policy will rebound in the Northeast, once this year’s election frenzy has passed.

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