Green policy gloom? Not in the states

April 18, 2012, 5:43 PM UTC

FORTUNE — If there’s one political consensus about climate change, renewable fuels, and alternative energy policy right now, it’s that the action isn’t in Washington. What’s more, don’t expect an intelligent debate about energy policy in the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney, while not a climate-change denier, believes the U.S. shouldn’t take unilateral action on what is fundamentally a global and borderless issue. President Obama rails against speculators influencing gas prices, an assertion so laughably irrelevant that he signals where he stands on the subject of promoting an intelligent energy debate. (At least not this year.)

But wait, there’s good news. If Washington can’t get its act together, then the action is in the states. It’s a point hedge fund honcho Tom Steyer made Tuesday at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif. His new Advanced Energy Economy initiative is focused on state and local initiatives, bypassing the nation’s capital in its advocacy efforts.

Individual states, in fact, are the brightest spots of bipartisan action on energy policy. “Thirty-five states have renewable energy requirements,” said William Reilly, EPA administrator under George H. W. Bush. “And Republicans are not attacking those because they are creating jobs.” Reilly cited the red state of Arizona as a prime example. Fred Krupp, boss of the notably bipartisan Environmental Defense Fund calls out Colorado, with a Democratic governor, for its disclosure requirements around fracking. (Frackers cracking the ground for natural gas need to disclose every chemical they pump into the ground; Look here for a basic explanation of fracking.)

If there has been a theme to this year’s Fortune conference, it’s quite gloomy. Gone is talk of “cap and trade.” Carbon taxes are a pipe dream. National leadership is absent on any of these issues. Yet there is always hope. Reilly, now an adviser to the private-equity firm TPG, ticks off positive developments of recent years: the 54-mile-per-gallon agreement among the auto companies and the Obama administration; the EPA enforcement of regulations to displace aging coal-fired electric plants with natural-gas-burning facilities; and the ubiquity of ultra-cheap, relatively clean natural gas.

There even is hope for action at the federal level. “If you looking for a clear policy today, you go to the states,” said John Podesta, a key Obama adviser who runs the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress. “That could change in 2013,” he said.

One can hope.