By now the mission of the two-year-old D.C.-based Apollo Alliance — to mobilize a grand-scale federal commitment to energy independence, with the triple-whammy promise of creating good jobs with new technology, bolstering national security with energy independence, and saving the planet from carbon emissions — has become something of a cliché.

Apollo: No longer shooting for the moon?

That’s both a creditable triumph and, some argue, a concerning liability. On the one hand, thanks to Apollo and other like-minded organizations, the virtues of energy independence are now almost universally applauded in the theater of American politics, as likely to be extolled in The Wall Street Journal and The National Review as on this website. On the other, the Apollo agenda may be suffering from its sheer agreeableness: It’s attracted coalition partners from a broad spectrum, but consensus among those partners centers on general concepts rather than specific, hard-hitting policy proposals.

Named after President Kennedy‘s visionary moon shot, which launched America’s space-exploration program, the Apollo Alliance is a coalition of labor, business, and environmental advocates that aims to unify the country behind a 10-year, $300 billion program of investment in clean-energy technology. The alliance claims its proposal would create more than 3 million new jobs, eliminate American dependence on Middle East oil imports, lead to 15 percent of U.S. electricity coming from renewable sources, and reduce national energy consumption by 16 percent.

Apollo’s vision has been endorsed by every major union in the AFL-CIO (even before this summer’s defections) and many environmental groups, as well as nine Democratic governors, including Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel recently heralded it as “one of the best progressive ideas of the millennium.”

“Apollo has been an absolutely integral force, if not the key force, in helping shift the framework of the energy debate from environmental space into economic … and national-security space,” said Peter Teague, director of the environment program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a lead funder of the Apollo project. It was Teague who brought framing theorist George Lakoff in during the development stages of the Apollo Alliance to help achieve this very goal.

“At almost every meeting of progressives I go to, people point to Apollo as the prime example of how we should be doing our politics differently. It fundamentally reorients our message away from doom and gloom and toward inspiration and solving multiple problems simultaneously,” he said.

Apollo was publicly unveiled in June 2003, having evolved alongside a handful of other organizations proclaiming similar goals, some spearheaded by hawkish conservatives concerned about national security. Frank Gaffney Jr., a former policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. and founder of the Center for Security Policy; C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel; and Robert McFarlane, former national-security adviser to Reagan, are active in the Energy Future Coalition and an organization called Set America Free. These groups champion efficiency and renewable-energy agendas in the name of national and economic security, and have intermittently collaborated with Apollo. “All these organizations evolved in parallel on the heels of Sept. 11,” said Apollo Alliance founding director Bracken Hendricks, who has been an adviser to the Energy Future Coalition and is a member of Set America Free.

According to Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, “Apollo was the first out of the box in articulating the idea that this is a job-creation and economic-development engine as well as good for energy and the environment. Those of us coming from the security angle have definitely embraced that message.”

Bill Clinton is another believer in the vision. “We’ve got to make [energy] a national-security argument, and we’ve got to make it a jobs argument, and we’ve got to make the price of oil irrelevant,” he said in July at an Aspen Institute gathering that included heavies ranging from Hardball‘s Chris Matthews to Amazon‘s Jeff Bezos to Jordan’s Queen Noor. He argued that the U.S. could create millions of jobs if clean-energy projects got just a fraction of the tax incentives that go to dirty energy.

Even Karl Rove seems to be adopting the rhetoric, if not the substance. In May, President Bush made an appearance at a biodiesel manufacturing facility in Virginia to talk up alternative-fuel subsidies in the energy bill. And in June, during a speech at the 16th annual Energy-Efficiency Forum in D.C., Bush proclaimed, “Here in America, we have become too dependent — too dependent — on the increasingly limited supply of foreign oil for our own energy needs.”

But in practice, of course, Bush has mainly pushed for more drilling and more tax breaks for extractive industries — even as fossil-fuel developers are enjoying record-high oil and gas prices. Indeed, the same goes for many others who pay lip service to energy independence. The presumed bipartisan consensus on the issue falls apart as soon as specific policies get debated.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who sits on Apollo’s advisory board, proposed an amendment to the energy bill in June that called for a 40 percent reduction in U.S. oil imports over 20 years. The measure was summarily defeated. Similarly, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) failed to even get a vote on his plan to replace the energy bill with a New Apollo Energy Act. That act, which has since been introduced as stand-alone legislation, includes ambitious measures ranging from a mandatory carbon cap to $49 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of clean-energy facilities. (The Apollo Alliance was not involved in developing the Cantwell initiative, despite her allegiance to the group, and though the alliance worked with Inslee as he crafted his bill, it did not endorse the final product because it included fuel-economy proposals that were objectionable to one of Apollo’s member unions.)

Of course, the energy bill that eventually reached Bush’s desk, and that he gleefully signed in early August, was quite limited in its assistance for clean energy technologies — of the $14.5 billion in subsidies it earmarks for the energy industry over the next decade, only 20 percent will go to renewables and energy efficiency. Far more prominent in the bill, and in the Bush energy strategy as a whole, are big subsidies for the nuclear-power industry and a big push to drill for oil and gas on public lands and in offshore waters. Critics of all political stripes argue that the bill’s grand giveaways to oil and coal producers will, if anything, increase America’s dependence on fossil fuels, not lessen it.

In essence, what we’ve now got at the federal level is lots of talk about promoting a clean-energy economy, and lots of action that’s leading to anything but.

Rebellion in the Ranks

Apollo’s leaders have had their own differences over how to parlay their widely talked-up vision into concrete policy making. Hendricks resigned from the executive director position this spring, though he remains on the steering committee. He stresses his continued commitment to the organization, but raises questions about its efficacy. “Apollo has not only recontextualized the climate-change and energy-independence debate [but] created an opening to pursue solutions,” he said. “The question is: How do you capitalize on that opening? It may be through Apollo, or a different set of strategies.”

It seems Hendricks is betting on the latter since he now divides his time between his new fellowship at the Center for American Progress, founded by Democratic strategist John Podesta, and his role as a strategic consultant at the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus — aka, The Reapers — authors of the controversial “Death of Environmentalism” paper that assailed the green movement’s political irrelevance.

Leaders of the Apollo program, who spent great effort trying to build practical coalitions among environmental and labor groups, were embarrassed when The Reapers singled out Apollo for lavish praise while savaging the rest of the environmental movement. “Our phone started ringing from friends wondering why we were working with people who attacked our coalition partners,” said a leader of the initial Apollo plan. “We didn’t know the paper was coming. We were completely blindsided.”

Within six months of the paper’s release, Shellenberger and “Death of” ally Adam Werbach, both of whom were among Apollo’s founding members, distanced themselves from the alliance. “Given our differing visions for how to advance Apollo, and lingering upset over ‘Death of,’ we all agreed it would be better for Adam and me to leave the Apollo Alliance and seek other ways to advance the vision, values, and ideas at both the national and state levels,” Shellenberger said.

“I felt like we needed to articulate concrete political proposals and get them out there in the world,” he continued. He argues that the alliance’s current focus on moving small state and local initiatives yields only “incremental” policy change, and it has not designed or endorsed new federal-level legislative initiatives. “We’re more interested in finding ways to introduce big, bold, and inspiring legislative proposals that may not pass anytime soon, but serve to frame the debate and create political momentum,” he said.

Apollo leaders might argue that their call for a massive public investment to advance clean-energy innovation is just such a bold vision — one that has little chance of becoming a legislative reality anytime soon, but nevertheless challenges the energy status quo and acts as an organizing and educational tool. But Apollo has outlined only vague legislative strategies to substantiate its $300 billion plan. In 2003, it issued a 40-page white paper that explored broad categories of investment for these funds, but since then has not grounded this vision in legislative detail, nor developed other, more detailed federal-level objectives.

Jeff Rickert, the acting executive director of Apollo, acknowledges that because his top priority is holding together a coalition of diverse organizations, there are limits to how specific and controversial Apollo can get in terms of its legislative proposals. “We have to steer clear of anything that looks like CAFE [corporate average fuel economy standards],” Rickert admits, in order to keep allies in the labor movement on board. Gasoline taxes and caps on carbon dioxide pollution are also anathema to some of Apollo’s labor partners.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America, who is on the Apollo advisory board and was instrumental in rallying support for the alliance among labor unions, declined to address the regulatory picture altogether. “I’m not going to get into a discussion about regulations,” he said. “That torpedoes the debate. My interest is in advancing the principles, advancing the fight, not dissolving into arguments about divisive regulatory strategies.”

Gerard stressed that Apollo must be careful not to alienate business interests: “We’re the dominant union in the petrochemical industry, and we’re not at all saying, ‘Put them out of business.’ We’re saying we want to keep a strong economy within America’s control. We’re saying, ‘If China runs around and buys up most of the world’s resources, what will we do? If the world starts demanding hybrids and Japan dominates that market, what will we do?'”

Gerard’s comments highlight the fact that the debate within the labor community over clean-energy policies is still in its infancy, and that blue-green alliances are still fragile.

States of Grace

If success at the federal level seems out of reach, though, the Apollo Alliance is making strides in the states, in many cases simply by bringing environmentalists and labor together.

In Pennsylvania, Apollo pushed a renewable portfolio standard — backed by a coalition including both steelworkers and enviros — that requires 18 percent of the state’s electricity to be generated from clean sources by 2020. Spanish wind company Gamesa cited the state’s adoption of the standard as one reason for its plans to build development offices and a manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania, a venture that could create up to 1,000 new jobs over five years.

In California, Apollo worked to get two huge state pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, to adopt a Green Wave investment plan under which they will invest some $450 million in eco-friendly technologies. And in New York City, the organization worked with the city council on a recently passed green-building measure requiring that new and expanded municipal buildings be certified with the equivalent of a LEED silver rating or better.

Rickert says that Apollo plans over the next three years to maintain only a low-level involvement in federal initiatives, while growing its local and regional efforts, with an emphasis on 10 states including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin. “We believe the best way to pave the way for sound energy initiatives is demonstrating their success at a state level,” he said.

Hendricks applauds these successes, but believes the federal battle can also be fought more directly. The Breakthrough Institute, for example, has been collaborating with the office of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on a bill it hopes he will propose later this year known as the Automotive Competitiveness and Accountability Act. It would relieve the pressure on U.S. automakers to bankroll the rising costs of legacy health insurance — an expense that doesn’t burden their foreign competitors — and, in exchange, obligate them to invest heavily in energy-efficiency technologies and comply with substantially more aggressive fuel-economy standards.

It represents a new way of thinking about environmental policies, says Hendricks — “offering a bailout to the [auto industry] from these hugely debilitating health costs they’re grappling with, but linking it to an accountability for achieving public purposes.”

Shellenberger insists that these types of edgy proposals are precisely what progressives need right now — “devices that will prompt battles that may be lost legislatively, but won at a cultural and political level” because they would force conservatives to take a position at odds with the pursuit of energy independence. The greater goal, in other words, is not to create frictionless coalitions, but constructive controversy. “We want to catapult the fuel-economy issue into contested political space,” as Nordhaus puts it, which would compel opponents of fuel efficiency to justify their positions.

The hope is that Obama and other progressive leaders could characterize anyone who votes against the Automotive Competitiveness and Accountability Act as an opponent of national security, job creation, and public health — just the way conservatives used the issue of gay marriage in the 2004 election to characterize liberals as opponents of traditional family values.

But the useful strategy of smoking out opponents doesn’t negate the importance of building and protecting the common ground between once-competitive interests, says Hendricks. “The challenge of jumping into the fight and pushing wedge issues is going to move the debate further and faster,” he said. “But holding together the blue-green coalition has real value. Keeping allies together and focused on what they can agree on is critical. We have to define and protect a safe, positive space for accord between people that have only recently begun to see their common cause.”

Apollo has certainly demonstrated its ability to attract and maintain broad backing for a compelling vision. Perhaps there’s no need for the alliance to do anything more than what it does best: forging consensus and pushing incremental policy measures at the state and local levels. This work can only help the activists and innovators who want to make waves — and eventually sea change — at a federal level.

A version of this article was published in The American Prospect, part of a special report on the “death and rebirth” of environmentalism.