Mark Warner. Photo: John Rohrbach via Flickr
Mark Warner.

“I’m a big believer that to get the American people to agree on transformative change, you’ve got to show bipartisan support,” Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Mark Warner tells Grist. “And I think if we’re really going to get the change in the energy field, it’s going to take that.”

Warner, the former governor of Virgina and current candidate in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. John Warner (no relation), was once rumored as a potential ’08 candidate for president, and later as a possible VP pick for Barack Obama (a post he said he wasn’t interested in). Now the centrist Democrat has been tapped to deliver the keynote address at this year’s Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 26. It’s the same prestigious slot that launched Obama to national fame at the 2004 convention.

Energy and bipartisanship will be themes in his keynote speech, Warner tells Grist. He has called the energy challenge one of the biggest issues the country faces, and he’s outlined short-term, intermediate, and long-term energy objectives, calling for both increased support for renewables and expansion of domestic oil and gas production. While he maintains that increased domestic oil drilling will do little to bring down gas prices, Warner says he believes that states should be able to decide whether companies can explore for oil and gas off their shores. He has run a TV ad that touts both renewables and offshore oil drilling.

Warner became a multimillionaire as one of the first investors in Nextel and a cofounder of the Capital Cellular Corp., and his experience in information technology feeds his optimism about clean energy technology. As governor of Virginia from 2002 to 2006, he scored points with enviros for working to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, promoting clean water programs, and preserving open space.

Warner’s main opponent in the Senate race is Republican Jim Gilmore, another former Virginia governor. A recent Rasmussen poll found Warner with a 59-33 advantage.

Grist: You’ve said that you think energy is an issue on which Americans can come together and make real progress rapidly. Why is that?

Warner: The motivator in this issue to change energy policy has different driving forces: the economic hardship caused by high gas prices, security concerns from buying oil from foreign countries that are anti-American, the job opportunity in terms of creating a domestic, cleaner energy supply, and the environmental concerns of climate change. Whatever road leads you, you come to the same conclusion, or at least 90 percent do, that we’ve got to change our energy policy and get ourselves off foreign oil.

Grist: What sort of energy policy do you propose?

Warner: I do think we’re going to have, whether it’s Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain who’s president, some level of restrictions on carbon emissions, probably through a cap-and-trade system, and I’m supportive of that. I would favor much higher fuel-efficiency standards, and tie that to at least a $5,000-a-year hybrid tax credit for next-generation hybrids and plug-in hybrids, 100 miles per gallon ranging down to 40 miles. I would like to see a dramatic increase in funding for research. Two billion dollars is how much we spent on energy R&D in 2006 — I think we need to look at that and increase it. I’d like to see a permanent R&D tax credit around the alternative energy space.

Where I might differ from some in the environmental community [is] I really think as a national price issue, you’ve got to have a whole portfolio. I think it’s solar. I think it’s wind. I think it’s biofuels, although I think the idea of the government trying to pick a winner the way we did with corn-based ethanol is not the right approach. I think you’ve got to continue the research for carbon capture and sequestration for coal. You have to take a fresh look at nuclear. I think [it should include] conservation in the grid. I even think that as part of a comprehensive approach you’ve got to [have] increased domestic [oil] production, including lifting the congressional moratorium on [offshore] drilling, as long as states can still do it in an environmentally friendly way, since the technology around the rigs has dramatically improved. You still have transport issues, but in terms of the rigs themselves they’re much better.

Grist: You’ve said that states should have the right to decide whether to allow drilling off their coasts, but you also acknowledge that offshore drilling won’t do much if anything to bring down gas prices. What makes you support it?

Warner: If we’re actually producing within the next 24 months 100-mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrids, that’s probably going to give the most immediate, direct relief.

But I do believe that oil and gas will be at least part of our product mix for the foreseeable future. I’d like to see it as a declining percentage of our product mix, but I assume that if we’re going to be using it, it ought to be American. I disagree with my opponent, who acts like it’s a single silver bullet. And I’m very conscious of the fact that America, even if we drill everywhere, has about 3 percent of the proven oil reserves, yet we use 22 percent of the world’s oil. That’s not the silver bullet, but let’s put it in the portfolio.

I think there are clearly less issues around natural gas in terms of safety issues than there are around oil, but if we are going to find oil, and it’s sufficiently offshore in the 50-mile range, and it can be shown that it’s done in a safe way, then I think it ought to be part of the mix. We’ve seen even post-Katrina there was not a dramatic challenge with the rigs. There were some problems in terms of transporting the fuel, but there weren’t problems with the rigs.

Grist: You say your opponent and Republicans in Congress have been emphasizing solely the “drill, drill, drill” message. What should be the message coming from Democrats in Congress to counter that?

Warner: I think the message should be that this is not a silver bullet, and that even the Bush Energy Department acknowledges that if we lift the [offshore drilling] moratorium and start the process, [increased production is] still years away. You’ve seen when we’ve tried to have national sound-bite policy prescriptions — they don’t work. We’re going to have a comprehensive approach and a broad-based portfolio. We’re going to have a price on carbon. We’re going to incent people to move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. We’re going to put a permanent tax credit [for renewable energy] in place. We’re going to have this whole mix here, emphasizing that we’re going to try to free ourselves from foreign oil, but at the same time try to take on climate change. We’re going to let the science and the market drive this, rather than the government picking winners or losers.

It’s not as snappy as “drill here, drill now,” but if you say, “Hey, no. We’ve had sound bites before. Look at this comprehensive approach where everything is on the table. We’re going to do what’s in this country’s long-term interest,” I would argue that we can make more progress.

Grist: Coal is a key energy source in Virginia. What role will coal play in the country’s energy future, especially as concerns about its environmental impacts are increasing?

Warner: I think we’re going to continue to use coal. I want to keep pushing utilities to not use best-of-the-last-generation technology, but really push much more aggressively about the possibilities of sequestration. I know there are debates all over the lot about how close it is, but I’ve seen some research they’re doing at Virginia Tech that says they’re much closer. I want to keep the pressure on. If we can get this right, think about the leverage that gives us with China, which is still putting up a new dirty coal plant every week.

Grist: Conservatives often argue that regulating greenhouse-gas emissions and shifting away from fossil fuels would be catastrophic for the economy and working families. How do you talk about these issues when you’re talking to voters who are already upset about rising gas prices?

Warner: Seven or eight years ago, the majority of the top solar and wind companies were American. Because the European Union and others went ahead and made the policy choices, now most of those solar and wind companies are European. So what we’re talking about here is yes, there is going to be some transition cost, but the renewable-energy sector over the next century will create more jobs and more wealth than arguably even telecom. Twenty years ago everyone thought that Japan was going to eat our lunch. Luckily we made innovations in telecom and IT and the internet, and we led in that area. If we don’t step up and join the rest of the world on the issue of carbon, you not only are going to have the environmental consequences, you’re also going to have the very real business consequences of missing the boat on the next great job and wealth creator for the world.

Grist: You watched the Senate’s climate debate from the outside this year. What would you bring to the debate next year as a senator?

Warner: I think the perspective I could bring is saying, “Hey, I don’t believe this is going to take 50 years.” In the early ’80s, everybody on Wall Street and everybody in the telecom industry said it would take 30 years to build out a wireless communications network, and at the end of that 30 years, 3 percent of Americans would have cell phones. Well, they got it wrong.

I think around this energy issue, we [should] push the power of innovation. And you’ve got the climate change issue as well, and the jobs issue. You’ve got all these things combining here. When this country puts its shoulder to the wheel, we can solve this, make our country safer, create millions of jobs, drive down the price of gas, and take a leading role on climate change. To me it’s a win-win-win. This greatest challenge we face is also the opportunity of our time.

Grist: What other environmental objectives would be priorities for you in the Senate?

Warner: One of the things I was proudest of in my governorship was we made record investments in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. We had very high clean water standards. I [want] federal support for continuing to work on the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Trying to make sure we’ve got clean water and other water issues are important to me.

One of the challenges I’m interested in is how do we continue to have appropriate environmental reviews that don’t take in some cases five to 10 years to do the environmental impact statements. So, [figuring out] how you maintain a commitment to science and environmental policy but realize that sometimes the process transaction costs are a huge challenge. I think most people who have taken on that issue so far have taken it on from an anti-environmental standpoint. I want to take it on from a pro-environment standpoint.

Grist: You’re giving the big keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. What do you plan to focus on? Will energy be part of what you talk about?

Warner: Energy will be clearly raised as one of the issues. But I’m very much a believer that politics in this country is too often driven by the loudest voices on either end of the political spectrum, and that’s not where I’m at. I’m a big believer that to get the American people to agree on transformative change, you’ve got to show bipartisan support. And I think if we’re really going to get the change in the energy field, it’s going to take that. Even though I’m going to be speaking at the Democratic convention, one of my major themes in this energy and climate issue is how do you build a bipartisan consensus to make real change in this country.

Grist: Both you and Obama are strong voices for consensus and bipartisanship. But on climate change, it seems like the maximum of what’s politically possible is well short of the minimum we need to do to solve the problem. It’s an issue where consensus won’t get us where we need to go.

Warner: I don’t agree with that.

Grist: What would you do to move consensus forward on this issue?

Warner: I think you’ve already got Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama both agreeing that climate is going to be a top priority for them. I think that if you’re going to get people to move further on climate, you [have to] make your energy policy a comprehensive approach. It doesn’t say we’re going to solve it by just doing solar and wind. It says, yeah, nuclear should be a piece of it. Yeah, there’s going to be some continued use of oil for the foreseeable future, so let’s go ahead and make it domestic oil. I actually think if you get out of this either/or approach, it’s either all renewables or it’s all drilling, and say it’s got to be both, and part of the trade-off means a significant commitment to climate change, that to me is a win.