Rep. Jay Inslee’s two central passions, clean energy and global warming, received scant attention during his last eight years in Congress. Now, after a power shift on Capitol Hill, he’s at the center of high-profile efforts to attack climate change and promote a new energy economy — not to mention get his colleagues up to speed on the issues.

The Democrat from Washington state’s first district, which encompasses suburbs north and west of Seattle, holds spots on two House committees that will play key roles in debates over how to tackle the climate crisis: the Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), and the new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, created this year by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Happily, he’s prepared. Inslee has focused on energy issues since the early 1970s and amassed a wonk’s expertise. This fall, he will release a book called Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, about the challenges and opportunities facing America as it navigates the twin crises of global warming and peak oil.

I caught up with Inslee at a Seattle café, where he enthusiastically dove into the weeds of energy and climate policy, all the while cautioning the environmental community to be realistic and understand that Congress is at the beginning of a long journey on these issues.

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Q. Anticipation was that the politics of climate and energy were going to change once Democrats took over Congress. Did they change as much as you expected?

A. They changed by a factor of four. The expectations I had of what was in the realm of the possible, even the day after election, are four times as optimistic now, because the country has changed so dramatically in the last three months. It’s amazing. The debate about global warming is over. The last nail has been driven in the coffin of the Flat Earth Society. We’re talking seriously about a cap-and-trade system.

It wasn’t just the election. It was the change in the country in the last few months, the change in the science, the fact that people are now seeing it with their own eyes. It’s kindled a lot of optimism in many of us.

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This is the best of times and the worst of times. The worst of times because the challenge is great, but the best of times because we have these [energy] technologies coming to fruition.
Q. Dingell doesn’t seem quite as energized about global warming as some of the other caucus members. What’s your take on his position?

A. John has represented the area where the auto industry is, and has been protective of that industry, strongly committed to its welfare. I certainly disagree with him on CAFE standards. But I think it would a big mistake to assume he is not going to act as an effective leader on global warming. He has said very clearly that he wants action. Under John’s leadership, we had the first hearing in House of Representatives history on a cap-and-trade system. I have confidence John’s going to come up with a consensus product to move forward.

Q. Conventional wisdom says it’s increasingly likely that a Democrat will be elected president in 2008, and even possible that Democratic majorities will grow in both houses. Why lock into weak policies when there’s the possibility of a much stronger position over the horizon?

A. That’s something we’ve got to think seriously about. I led a discussion with the environmental community about this very issue. People were somewhat reluctant to believe we could actually make meaningful progress this year.

That was three months ago. The center of gravity has shifted dramatically, and what is in the realm of the achievable is 100 percent more than it was, in my estimation, a lot of people’s estimation. I can’t believe how much the emotional, scientific, and political ground has shifted on this. So it’s a lot less of a concern than it was three months ago.

The other thing I would say is: this business is so difficult. On September 10, 2001, we could have predicted the demise of the Bush administration. It didn’t turn out that way. So hoping on a Democratic president … the world is too mercurial. I’m thinking we should take action this year rather than having a debate society for two years.
Q. Carpe diem?

A. Carpe the majority.

Q. There seems to be a growing grassroots consensus that corn ethanol, if it’s preferable over gasoline at all, is so by a fairly narrow margin. Why has ethanol become virtually coextensive with energy policy in Washington?

A. We have to design a policy that uses corn ethanol for a positive purpose, but does not lock us into the technology. You don’t want the Wright brothers’ flyer locked in as the only technology in aerospace.

But the Wright brothers’ flyer did have a meaningful purpose: It set us up for growth in aerospace. That’s how I look at corn ethanol. It is a first generation. It will create an infrastructure of distribution that can be used for cellulosic ethanol. It will create political pressure to require flex-fuel vehicles, so the auto industry will give us cars that burn ethanol or gasoline. It will give us the critical strength to require that the oil and gasoline industry put in E85 pumps at its stations. It helps build a constituency that can help develop the second generation of ethanol, the one that will have meaningful environmental benefits.

One of my goals right now is making sure my colleagues understand that all ethanol is not created equal. I’m very optimistic about this. Vinod Khosla‘s opening up the first wood-fiber-based cellulosic-ethanol plant in Georgia. Iogen’s ready to go with wheat straw in Idaho if we can get the loan guarantee through. I’m bullish.

Corn ethanol does have a virtue — there are security benefits that are not environmental.
Q. The alternative to this quest for alternative liquid fuels is to push for fully electric vehicles. It’s easier to find green electricity sources than it is to find green liquid fuels. Why not go straight to electric, perhaps by supporting plug-in hybrids?

A. I’m going to give you Umbrella Principle No. 1: there’s no silver bullet. The wisest policy on energy is to spread your bets among multiple technologies. You simply cannot project winners and losers among these multiple technologies. I believe biofuels have a potential and an economic benefit. If we get to cellulosic ethanol, it has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions and will be a good partner with plug-in hybrids. Plug-in hybrids are going to take you the first 30 to 40 miles. That’s 60 percent of our trips, under 40 miles, but there’s another 35 to 40 percent that aren’t. What are you going to burn? Even with optimistic battery projections, you’re going to need some fuel.

I’m hugely bullish on plug-in hybrids; I feel good about their prospects in the next four or five years.

My belief is, if you’ve got 10 doors, you’ve got to open all 10 of them.

Q. There are opportunity costs, though. There isn’t an unlimited pot of money or attention.

A. There should be. There will be. We’re just getting started.

I was confronting [Energy] Secretary [Samuel] Bodman on this issue the other day. I had charts of energy R&D, health R&D, and defense R&D. Energy R&D has gone down by two-thirds since the 1970s. Health R&D’s gone up five to eight times. Defense R&D has gone up 10 to 20 times. We spend less on energy R&D [in a year] than [we spend in] a month in Iraq, probably two weeks.

We’re not at the first inch on this journey of global warming. In the Everest expedition, we’ve just started to pack our mitts. We should plan on having five times the energy R&D in this country in the next 10 years. It would be idiotic not to, given the nature of this challenge. I believe it’s reasonable, politically, to get to that level.
Q. Would you support a revenue-neutral carbon tax, one that’s refunded back to taxpayers either on a per-capita basis or some other way?

Hot under the collar.

A. Would I support it? Well, I’m in support of the cap-and-trade system right now, and the reason is several-fold. I think a cap-and-trade is more efficient, across all sectors and across all countries, than a pure price-per-gallon [tax] set arbitrarily by the government. It has the potential to inspire more change than even a revenue-neutral tax, even on an abstract basis.

But I don’t live in a world of abstraction. I live in a world of getting things done. And there is 1,000 times more likelihood that we can get a cap-and-trade system through. I’m not shy about voting for these things — I voted for a gas tax in 1993, in my first term in Congress. But I’ll tell you what happened: We voted for it in the House, it went over to the Senate, and in 24 hours they had killed it. My job is to save the planet, not to talk about it.

Q. You’d say flatly that a carbon tax is politically impossible for the foreseeable future?

A. Yes. In the next two years, it is inconceivable that we could get 66 votes in the United States Senate to pass a carbon tax. It’s a very interesting intellectual, academic discussion, one that should be had, but as far as my ability in the next two years …

Q. How about in 2009?

A. I can’t predict the future. The world may change. The Greenland ice may break up in six months, and the North Atlantic current shut down, and then OK, public sentiment may change.

You’ve got to understand, the U.S. Congress is just starting to have a glimmer of understanding of this challenge. To hit them in the face with a flounder called a gas tax is just not going to be very successful. As a person in public life, anyone who believes you can vote for a tax without difficulty has never voted for one. We lost the entire United States Congress, including 60 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1994 — which eliminated our ability to do anything about this project for another eight years. If we eliminated our ability to do anything else for the environment for another 10 years … anyway, that’s what you’ve got to think about.

If we get a cap-and-trade system, and the United States has a binding commitment to a CO2 cap, that is a significant change in the world.

Q. Is there a consensus around a particular cap-and-trade proposal?

A. There’s no consensus. People are just now beginning to think about this. Now, if you’re a betting person, the most likely thing to pass in the real world is the weakest thing, OK? But we’re not going to settle for that. We’re going to push and get the toughest, most meaningful, enforceable, no-escape-clause, no-safety-valve, no-off-ramp bill we can possibly get. And this is where the environmental community needs to think like venture capitalists. The more long-term certainty there is, the more success there will be getting investment in new technologies. That’s critical. It’s more important to have certainty and confidence, even at a lower bar.

We’ve got a reasonable chance of passing a cap-and-trade bill without a so-called safety valve.
Q. There’s a great deal of suspicion in the green community that “clean coal” is a political sop to coal states, to keep the coal industry alive when it ought to be allowed to die a natural death.

A. You shouldn’t diminish the importance of that, if that is true. If the price of getting a cap-and-trade system in this country is doing clean-coal research, that is the cheapest investment in the future of our planet we could possibly make. I guess I would encourage people not to think of this in the sense of purity.

You’ve got to maximize research on anything that has a realistic potential environmental benefit. It may be possible to gasify coal and to sequester it at some coal locations that have a saline dome or a limestone geology, and good transmission available, and a permitting process that prevents raping the land in the coal-mining process, and a transportation system. I’m limiting the places it would work, but I do believe there are some places where this technology potentially could work.

This is what I told President Bush [recently] on a retreat in Virginia: “Mr. President, with all due respect, the investment of a billion dollars of taxpayer money in clean-coal research is an absolute, guaranteed failure, a billion dollars down a rat hole, unless it is accompanied by a strong cap-and-trade system. Why would we invest a billion dollars into clean coal when there is no economic incentive for anybody to build it?”

Q. He seems somewhat obsessed with it.

A. Nuclear too. That was the first thing out of his mouth: do nuclear and everything’s solved. It’s regrettable.

I will say this: this whole issue around global warming and energy has taken a partisan, ideological tone that really closes minds. If Denis Hayes, Jimmy Carter, or Ted Turner ever had an idea, Dick Cheney would be opposed to it, no matter how much it would benefit the U.S. economy. It works a little bit the other way, too. It’s important for us in the environmental community to break our customary way of thinking. The magnitude of the global-warming challenge demands that all of us be able to think not only outside our box, but in somebody else’s box.

Q. If you had no political constraints, what would you like to get done?

A. A lot of things in my New Apollo energy bill are not going to get passed in the next two years. It’s important to provide a forward-looking vision even if you can’t get it through. But you don’t allow the vision of a 10-year goal to prevent you from taking a modest step forward.

There’s a thousand things. I’d start with the cap-and-trade system, and the goal would be more aggressive than I’m going to get my colleagues to accept in the next year. Maybe they will six years from now.

The R&D budget I would set would be five to 10 times higher. We should have a response like World War II. The threat to America is equivalent, in the long-term, to a major existential war, so our national response has to be of that scope and scale.

I would do things much more aggressive on efficiency, and I suspect we are capable of doing them in short order. I would do things that might be a little more mandatory in the auto-insurance industry. I would have 70, 80 percent of our cars be flex-fuel cars in the next three years. I would mandate 10 percent of our service stations have an E85 pump in short order. I may get some of that in the next year.

The things I’m talking about are going to happen. I believe everything I proposed in the New Apollo Energy Project is going to become American policy. It’s common sense — the nature of the challenge will demand it.

Q. Conservative pundits say making these changes would be too costly.

A. This is the distinction between us and them: They’re the pessimists. We’re the optimists. We’re the people who believe in our future, they’re the people who believe we’re too stupid to figure out a way to solve this. Their argument is, the people who invented the steamboat, the light bulb, the internet, the jet airplane, mapped the human genome, and went to the moon cannot figure out a way to save energy. Why bet on stupidity?

Q. How much can we rely on individual changes in behavior? Don’t we need to get the bigger message across too?

A. People don’t understand how powerful they are as leaders in their communities. People change cultures daily by their own individual behavior. It changes the culture in their neighborhood, their church, their family. It’s amazing to me what people can achieve by their individual contributions.

The single most important thing is our confidence in being able to beat it. If people have confidence they can achieve this, they will do the individual things, they will do the business things, they will do the government things. The one thing I can do — and frankly, I would entreat you to do — is give people a reason to be confident. We can niggle ourselves into failure here. Developing that can-do spirit is intrinsic to winning this battle.

One benefit of age is to see how plastic society is, and human behavior is. In 1972, the year you were born, in this country there was zero recycling, everybody smoked, nobody wore a seatbelt. I’m confident stuff can change. I’ve seen it in my lifetime.