The Green-Energy Culture Wars in Red States

Another thing holding back our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy

A map of the U.S. is shown with red states and their relationship to green energy sources
The Atlantic

The battle over the nation’s energy future has become another front in the escalating cultural and political confrontation between what America has been and what it is becoming.

The states that are most deeply integrated into the existing fossil-fuel economy, either as producers or as consumers, tend also to be the places that are most resistant to, and separated from, the major demographic, cultural, and economic changes remaking 21st-century American life.

These fossil-fuel-reliant states are nearly all among those moving most aggressively to restrict voting, abortion, and LGBTQ rights; to ban books; and to censor what teachers and college professors can say about race, gender, and sexual orientation. The majority of them rank near the bottom among the 50 states in the share of their residents who hold four-year college degrees, are foreign-born, or work in occupations tied to the new digital economy, according to census figures. Industry marketing figures show they tend to rank near the bottom of the 50 states in adoption of electric vehicles and near the top in their reliance on gas-guzzling pickup trucks. Most of them have larger populations of white voters who identify as Christian and rely heavily on blue-collar work in the powerhouse industries of the 20th century: production of energy and other natural resources, manufacturing, and agriculture. Republicans dominate their electoral landscape, both in state and federal offices.

This convergence of fossil-fuel dependence, cultural conservatism, and isolation from the most dynamic modern industries captures how comprehensively the two parties are divided by their exposure to, and attitudes about, the changes reshaping America. It also shows how difficult it will be to establish any consensus for national action to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, despite the mounting evidence that climate change threatens all regions of the country (and the world).

The irony is that the energy transition may represent the best chance for the states most reliant on fossil fuels to benefit from the new sources of economic growth. Although the fossil-fuel-reliant states (with Texas and Ohio as the most conspicuous exceptions) are almost all peripheral today to the digital revolution creating massive wealth, many of them are already leaders in the production of clean energy, especially wind and solar power. Yet their political leaders, in what I’ve called the “brown blockade,” are generally fighting the policies that would accelerate the growth of those emerging industries—such as the tax incentives for clean energy in the sweeping Build Back Better economic plan that has been blocked by opposition from Joe Manchin and every Republican senator.

“This messaging that deploying electric vehicles or transitioning toward wind and solar and other clean-energy technologies will be damaging to economies in Republican states is a misconception,” Lindsey Walter, the deputy director of Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program, told me. Last year Walter co-wrote a detailed study on how a shift away from fossil fuels would affect the states. Replacing fossil fuels with lower-carbon energy sources, she said, will create “a tremendous amount of jobs in Republican states.”

The federal Energy Information Administration calculates one of the most comprehensive benchmarks of states’ integration in the existing fossil-fuel economy. It measures how much carbon each state emits from its energy sector per dollar of economic activity within its borders. That captures both the states that are big producers of fossil fuels—including oil, natural gas, and coal—and those that are big consumers of it, usually because they depend more heavily on fossil fuels for producing electricity and/or rely on industries with large carbon footprints, particularly manufacturing and agriculture.

The 19 states that top the EIA’s latest rankings—for the most carbon emitted per dollar of economic output in 2018—present a singular profile. They begin with Wyoming, West Virginia, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Alaska at the top of the list and then extend across the South (including Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas), the heartland (including Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska), and the Mountain West (Montana, New Mexico). Conspicuously absent are states along either coast or in New England.

All of these 19 fossil-fuel-reliant states, except for New Mexico, voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Republicans now hold 33 of their 38 Senate seats—with the two in New Mexico, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Jon Tester in Montana as the sole remaining Democrats. (By comparison, President Joe Biden won all 16 states with the lowest carbon emissions per dollar of economic output, primarily states along the two coasts, and Democrats hold all of their Senate seats except that of the Republican Susan Collins in Maine.) Republicans hold unified control of their governorship and state legislature in 15 of these 19 states, while in Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana, Republicans control the legislature but a Democrat holds the governorship. New Mexico is the only state among them where Democrats control all the levers of state government.

The political leadership in these states has opposed most efforts to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. Fourteen of these states, for instance, have joined in a lawsuit (led by West Virginia) now before the Supreme Court that could undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions. The Texas state comptroller this month sent a letter to nearly two dozen financial institutions threatening to exclude them from state business under a new law barring contracts with companies that disinvest in the fossil-fuel industry. The Republican senators from these states have also uniformly opposed proposals to limit carbon emissions, such as a clean-electricity standard to phase out carbon-emitting electricity.

The most important exception to this pattern is that many congressional Republicans have backed tax credits to encourage deployment of wind and solar power. “It’s very easy to cast a broad brush, but in the very recent times, we have had Democrats and Republicans in this environment come together to support real and meaningful things,” Heather Zichal, the CEO of the American Clean Power Association, the leading trade group for companies in that industry, told me. Still, all Senate Republicans are opposing the Build Back Better Act’s more sweeping incentives, which energy analysts agree could enormously accelerate the development of those sources. Instead, most of them have called for increasing domestic production of oil and gas, especially because gasoline prices have spiked since the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected global energy markets.

Manchin has echoed those calls, repeatedly insisting that the instability caused by the invasion shows the importance of producing more domestic fossil fuels. At a recent energy-industry conference in Texas, Manchin disparaged the idea of rapidly shifting away from gasoline-powered cars and trucks toward electric vehicles, the latter of which the Biden administration is hoping to promote. “I’m very reluctant to go down the path of electric vehicles,” Manchin said. “I’m old enough to remember standing in line in 1974 trying to buy gas—I remember those days. I don’t want to have to be standing in line waiting for a battery for my vehicle, because we’re now dependent on a foreign supply chain, mostly [from] China.” Although Manchin insists that he supports the Build Back Better plan’s climate provisions—a package of more than $500 billion in tax incentives—he continues to block the overall bill, which has left it in limbo. More recently, he joined all Senate Republicans to block a Biden nominee to the Federal Reserve Board, Sarah Bloom Raskin, who has advocated for greater scrutiny of financial institutions’ exposure to climate-change-related risks.

Almost all of the states fighting the energy transition are expressing equally intense resistance to social change. In effect, they are fighting the future on both fronts.

Seven of the most fossil-fuel-reliant states, for instance, have already approved laws barring transgender girls from participating in high-school (and in some cases college) sports; the Oklahoma legislature last week approved such a bill as well, and Missouri and Kansas are still considering similar measures. In three other states, the governor (including two Republicans and one Democrat) has vetoed such a bill after the legislature approved it.

About half of these states—most aggressively Texas, Iowa, and Montana—have passed laws making it harder to vote. Likewise, eight of them have acted through legislation or administrative action to restrict how teachers can talk about race or gender in the classroom, and some of the others are still considering such proposals. (West Virginia also passed similar restrictions at the very end of its session, but legislative officials determined that the state Senate voted on the bill literally seconds after the session’s expiration.) Thirteen of these states have laws on the books that will ban or severely restrict abortion access if the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision this summer, as many expect.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow and the policy director at the Brookings Metro think tank, says the widespread adoption of these policies across the fossil-fuel-reliant states will likely deepen their exclusion from the digital industries driving much 21st-century economic growth. Though there are nodes of digital employment in several of the heaviest carbon-emitting states (particularly Ohio and Texas), 16 of them finished in the bottom 23 when Brookings Metro ranked states by the share of their workforce employed in technology jobs.

The core problem for these states, Muro notes, is that most of them tend to lack the well-educated workers who are, in essence, the crucial raw material for not only internet, computing, and communications firms but also advanced manufacturing. Muro says that the torrent of culturally conservative legislation across the fossil-fuel-reliant states (and GOP-controlled states more broadly) adds another barrier to tech companies pursuing significant expansions in them. “They want to decentralize somewhat, but they are very concerned about how this plays with the people they are trying to hire,” Muro says. Companies, he adds, “need to make sure the talent is not put off” by these restrictive social policies.

Ironically, one emerging 21st-century industry in which the fossil-fuel-reliant states have established a beachhead is clean energy. Recently released data from the American Clean Power Association found that many of those states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa, were among those that saw the largest installations in 2021 of solar, wind, and other renewable-energy capacity. Oklahoma this month brought on line the largest wind farm ever built at one time in North America. Walter noted that Third Way’s study found that whereas oil, gas, and coal resources are concentrated in relatively few places, more states are positioned to benefit from a low-carbon energy mix because wind, solar, and water resources are more widely distributed.

Devashree Saha, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, told me most economic models project that, overall, the transition from a fossil-fuel to a clean-energy economy will create more jobs than it destroys in energy-related sectors. But she and other experts such as Zichal and Walter all pointed out that even with wind and solar rapidly growing in many fossil-fuel-reliant states, there’s no guarantee the new jobs will entirely offset the old in every state; for instance, because electric vehicles have fewer parts and require less time to assemble, the shift toward them might reduce employment in the Rust Belt states that now dominate the auto industry. In the transition from one energy economy to the next, “there might be a mismatch of geography; there might be a mismatch of timing,” Saha said. “Given all these constraints, we need to be very deliberative and strategic in terms of our policies” to ensure that the states now most reliant on fossil fuels share in the opportunities associated with the transition to more renewable sources.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden signed last year included several provisions designed to channel jobs in the clean-energy economy toward places that would be hurt by diminished reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal communities. The now-stalled Build Back Better plan contains further incentives to steer that investment, though those haven’t been sufficient to overcome the opposition from Republicans representing the fossil-fuel states, or Manchin.

That resistance underscores the extent to which the energy transition has been woven into the larger struggle over the country’s direction between what I’ve called the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation” and the competing Republican “coalition of restoration.” The loud demands for more domestic oil and gas drilling since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the fierce opposition to any regulation of carbon emissions, show how a low-carbon future has become just another count in the indictment Republicans use to convince their voters that Democrats want to uproot America from its deepest traditions and transform it into something unrecognizable. Belittling increased reliance on electric vehicles or wind-generated electricity (which Trump repeatedly, almost obsessively, mocked) becomes another way for conservatives to argue that they are defending “real” Americans against “elitists” who allegedly disdain their values and want to control their lives—the same arguments they are marshaling to support censoring how teachers talk about race and gender or to block transgender girls from competing in school sports.

Operating in Trump’s long shadow, Republicans are betting more heavily on that case than ever (as evidenced by the torrent of socially conservative legislation advancing since 2020 in red states). But the underlying economic realities may make it difficult for them to force the energy debate into a culture-war prism indefinitely.