Power, Greed, Political Influence: Whose Energy Debate Is This?

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Billionaire Tom Steyer launched a campaign to rival the conservative Koch brothers and supporters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. A rival campaign that cost a Nevada solar power project more than a quarter of its designed capacity, however, shows there are deep divisions, along with powerful political forces, driving U.S. energy policy.

Steyer, founder of global investment firm Farallon Capital Management, hosted top Democratic leaders last week, vowing to put up $50 million of his own money and raise $50 million more to back the party's pro-green leaders.

The event, backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was meant as a counterweight to a conservative effort from the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, to drive the Republican agenda through along with the Keystone XL pipeline.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said there's a "jarring disconnect" in how Democrats and Republicans frame the national energy debate. Republicans, he said, have an obvious "anti-environmental" agenda, while rivals in the Democratic party "are overwhelmingly pro-environment."

When President Obama announced measures to improve fuel efficiency for medium- and heavy-duty trucks last week, he sang a refrain familiar to Republicans that the effort could help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

"America is closer to energy independence than we've been in decades," he said.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Obama's much-lauded "all-of-the-above" energy policy was also blazing news trails in the solar power sector. When Obama took office in 2009, she said, there were no solar projects approved on public lands. With the Stateline solar farm in California and Nevada's Silver State South project, however, there will be enough solar capacity online to meet the demands of 170,000 households serviced by Southern California Edison, one of the largest utility companies in the country.

First Solar, the company behind the facilities, proposed State South as a 350 megawatt plant. It was forced to downsize by 100MW and fork over $7.1 million to mitigate risks to a desert tortoise habitat. Last year, environmental group Defenders of Wildlife threatened to sue over the solar project.

U.S. energy policy, Jewell said, requires a "long view." While high-profile issues like the "dirty" Keystone XL pipeline is fodder for energy wonks, issues like the broader climate debate don't do much in terms of driving a political agenda forward, according to critics mindful of Al Gore fatigue. Seyer's $100 million bet on a low-carbon Capitol Hill is likely a low energy initiative in and of itself. But even the greenest of debates has its foes, showing Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy may just as well describe its wide range of critics as much as its initiatives.

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