Grist and Outside

This is part of a series of interviews with presidential candidates produced jointly by Grist and Outside.

Update: Mike Huckabee dropped out of the presidential race on Mar. 4, 2008.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee.
Photo: healthierus.gov

Should you heart Huckabee? The jovial former Arkansas governor famously shed 100 pounds in two years and became an outspoken health and fitness advocate, and now he’s focusing that can-do attitude on a much weightier problem: America’s beleaguered energy system.

“The first thing I will do as president is send Congress my comprehensive plan for energy independence,” he proclaims on his website. “We will achieve energy independence by the end of my second term.” The goal may sound admirable, but even if it’s achievable — and many experts doubt that it is — Huckabee’s plan for getting there is light on specifics. Rather than spell out what steps he would take, he talks of creating a market environment that encourages innovation and he praises just about every energy source you can think of — nuclear, “clean coal,” wind, solar, hydrogen, biomass, biodiesel, corn-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other untapped domestic areas, and, yes, conservation too.

A conservative Republican and devout Christian, Huckabee believes he has a biblical responsibility to protect God’s planet from climate change, even though he’s not convinced that climate change is largely human-caused. But mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions make him squeamish.

I called Huckabee up in Iowa to find out how his ideas are playing on the campaign trail.

For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist’s Huckabee fact sheet.


What makes you the strongest Republican candidate on the issues of energy and the environment?

For one thing, I’m one of the few people who’s actually talked about the fact that as Republicans we have done a lousy job of presenting the case for conservation. We ought to be the leaders, but unfortunately we’ve been the last people speaking out on conservation.

Not only as a Republican, but as a Christian it’s important to me to say to my fellow believers, “Look, if anybody ought to be leading on this issue, it ought to be us.” We can’t justify destroying a planet that doesn’t belong to us, and if we believe that God did create this world for our pleasure and wants us to enjoy it, then all the more reason that we should take care of it.

You’ve vowed in your presidential platform to achieve energy independence by your second term. What inspired this stand?

A country is not free if it can’t produce three things for itself — its own food, its own fuel, and its own fighting apparatus. If we depend on someone else for those things, then we are at the mercy of those producing states. That’s why energy independence is not only an environmental and economic concern, but an urgent national-security priority. If we didn’t have any dependence on oil from the Middle East or even from Venezuela or Russia, we would not be nearly so worried about what’s happening in those countries. We’re desperately tied up in making sure that their stability is, in essence, our stability.

How would you achieve energy independence by your second term?

The key is to create the kind of unbridled marketplace that turns innovators loose to find the solutions. I don’t think we’re going to find one big answer. I think it’s going to be a combination of many that will include hydrogen, solar, wind, nuclear, domestically produced fossil fuels — at least for the short term. Our goal is to be non-dependent upon fossil fuels, but there will be an interim period in which we’ll need to utilize all the domestic oil that we can generate by ourselves, whether it’s from ANWR or the continental shelf.

What role will coal technologies play, including liquefied coal?

I think there’s a place for it, and I think we need to insist that it’s clean coal. What we don’t need is another generation of coal that has serious polluting consequences.

Agricultural-based fuels are very important to me because they’re renewable and help create some stability in the agriculture economy of the United States.

Hydrogen has great potential. I recently visited a hydrogen plant in Iowa — they derive hydrogen-based fuel from ammonia. The technology is still somewhat challenging to make affordable, but it’s a relatively simple process. We could accelerate our ability to make it more cost-efficient.

Do you think we need to expand the role of nuclear power in the U.S.?

Absolutely. France is almost completely nuclear, and it’s not like they’re a nation given to risky behaviors. There’s been a real bias against nuclear energy in the United States, going all the way back to Three Mile Island in 1979, but I think most of it is unfounded. I mean, we’ve been running nuclear submarines for 60 years without accidents.

What would you do about the problem of storing nuclear waste?

I recognize that’s the sticky part. Everybody wants the benefits of nuclear energy, but nobody wants the storage of the nuclear material in their own backyard. Part of it is you have to make it economically viable for somebody to actually receive it. But a lot of it is changing attitudes, educating the public that nuclear byproducts can be disposed of safely, because the first reaction people have is, “Our kids are going to glow in the dark if we put that stuff in our state.” That’s not the case.

You mentioned your support for ethanol and other biofuels. Do you think we’ll need to transition from corn-derived ethanol to the more energy-efficient varieties, like cellulosic?

I think that makes sense. I think there’s still going to be a place for corn to be a part of it. What we need to be doing is — and I don’t think we’re all that far from it — is developing a technology that would take virtually any kind of biomass, and be able to then burn it, so that it doesn’t have to necessarily be corn-specific or rice-hull-specific. There would be different ways of processing it, and what you’re really doing is generating the energy from the biomass itself.

How would you encourage a shift toward renewable and clean industries? Would it be incentive-based? Would you have a renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to produce a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources?

Some of both. I think that there ought to be some government grants and subsidies for those who accelerate ways to produce the energy. And I’d simply say, we’re not going to tax you for coming up with these ideas. I would eliminate all tax on productivity, and replace it with a simple consumption tax.

I would also want to assemble some of the best minds in the country to make sure that we set goals that really challenge us. I think the problem is we’ve not set challenging goals. We’ve got a lot of leaders who only want to take on issues that they can solve in their own first term so they can get reelected. We need to be looking at things in the same way John F. Kennedy looked at the space program and said, “We’ll put a man on the moon within a decade.”

Do you think we need to increase auto fuel-economy standards to help achieve your energy-independence goal?

I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t honestly know what the standards should be. That’s where I’d want to get some scientific advice on what we can achieve. You don’t want to do something that’s going to completely wreck the current economy. But I also think we need to do some serious pushing. We need to get to the place so that within a decade we can tell the Saudi royal family that we’re no longer going to continue to make them obscenely wealthy with our purchase of their oil. Frankly, much of that wealth ends up coming back to finance terrorism.

You often invoke your faith when talking about environmental stewardship. How are these two issues connected for you?

This world doesn’t belong to me. I’m a guest here. I don’t have a right to abuse it, any more than I have a right to abuse someone else’s property if they were to let me stay in their apartment for a weekend. It’s a sin against future generations for me to act as if there are no future generations that should enjoy the world as I do.

I love the outdoors. We have a beautiful, magnificent world: rivers and streams and mountains. I find myself overwhelmed when I look at it. I want my great-great-great-grandchildren to one day go out and smell the same fresh air, fish in wonderful streams, and be able to see the same mountains I see. I sure don’t want them to have it in worse shape and wonder why I didn’t do a better job of handing it down to them.

Do you believe that human beings are the primary drivers of climate change?

The honest answer is I don’t know. And for me, that’s not the issue. Instead of being wrapped into this political discussion of, “Is there global warming, and who caused it?,” what we need to be saying is, “Look, let’s agree that we all have responsibility to present a better planet to the next generation.” Whether or not you want to believe that it’s caused by driving to work, let’s agree that we need to take better care of the planet. Being a conservationist is the proper way to live, whether there is human-based global warming or not.

How would you go about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions?

I think there’s several things we can do — for example, replace light bulbs with the fluorescent types. We need to shoot for less fossil fuel, go to more energy-efficient and certainly non-carbon-producing methods of energy.

Do you think that voluntary efforts are enough, or do we need to impose mandatory emissions reductions?

Hopefully it can be a combination. I’m always concerned when someone mentions mandatory because I think that there’s going to be a government-imposed restriction on a lot of our lifestyle choices. What really ought to happen is, when we start developing a different kind of energy economy it will evolve rather quickly.

What role should the U.S. play in crafting a new international climate-change agreement?

I think the best role that we can play is by the example we set and by many of the market changes that we can make. When people start making a lot of money off alternative fuels and fuel-efficient vehicles and energy sources, you can rest assured that people are going to gravitate toward it. That’s got to be our goal and it’s got to be an urgent one.

The U.S. consumes far more energy per capita than other countries. Do you believe that we have a moral obligation to take the global lead in curbing our energy use and CO2 emissions?

I certainly think we ought to be mindful, but I have to be careful here because I don’t think the government needs to start telling people we’re going to limit how many hours a day you can run your fan, or whether or not you can plug in your television set. I’d like to believe that people would start thinking that it’s their responsibility to do it. But I don’t know that I want the government telling me, “I’m sorry, you can’t drive that kind of car.” I have a flex-fuel vehicle right now; I very well may buy a hybrid, but I don’t want the government telling me I have to.

What about the government saying, “Hey, electricity industry: You need to find a way to create that same energy with lower emissions?”

I’m open to that and I think that’s a worthy kind of goal. Maybe it’s an incentive, where they have lower tax burdens if they find ways to cut the cost of production.

What do you think is the most pressing environmental issue facing the nation, if not climate change?

I think the issue of pollution of the water, air, and soil, because that affects everything in our overall eco-structure, whether it’s our streams or our soil to produce our food. Everything that we truly treasure is better when we take care of it, and it’s truly harmed when we pollute it, when we act as if we are a one-time generation and we don’t have any obligation for the future.

What environmental achievement are you proudest of?

I campaigned for Amendment 75 of the Arkansas constitution that dedicates an eighth of a percent of sales tax for everything purchased in the state for conservation. And we’ve used that money to completely rebuild our state parks system, fight pollution, purchase thousands of acres that are now set aside to remain natural, and create friendly and affordable places for families to enjoy the outdoors. We have the responsibility to make sure that the poorest family in the state can enjoy a day in the outdoors, whether it’s hunting, fishing, hiking, or camping.

Who is your environmental hero?

Oh, probably Teddy Roosevelt.

Could you share a memorable outdoor adventure or natural experience?

I’ll tell you one that almost got me killed. A group of my staff and cabinet members went on a float trip on the Buffalo River, up in north Arkansas, which is one of the most absolutely beautiful places on Earth. We pulled over to have lunch, and there was this group of guys in their 20s to early 30s, and they had some elastic-type straps and they were using them as a slingshot and shooting beer cans across the river, slamming them against this huge rock wall. I just couldn’t believe this. I was appalled, because we’re very protective of the Buffalo River in Arkansas.

Before I could even think about it, I went over to those guys, who were twice my size, and I said, “Do you have any idea what the fine is for littering?” I said, “This is not just a state treasure, it’s a national river. Do you have any idea what it is?” And I said, “I’ve already taken the number of your canoe, I can find out who you are.” And they just looked at me and their eyes went like, “Who are you?” I didn’t even bother to tell them. I just said, “It’s $1,000 per incident. I’ve just seen you knock three cans against it. You’ve got two choices: You either go over there and pick up those cans, or I’m going to make sure that you get the full extent of the law.”

And finally my troopers came over, and one of the guys I was talking to said, “Well, we’ll go get them.” I was walking away, and someone asked, “Who is that guy?” And another guy said, “He’s the governor of the state.”

If you could spend a week in one park or natural area, where would it be?

Lake Greeson in Arkansas. It’s a lake my wife and I grew up on as kids and it has special meaning to us.

You’re known to be a strong fitness advocate, having lost more than 100 pounds in recent years. As president, how would you advocate better fitness nationally?

There are two basic elements to health: good nutrition and activity. We’ve got to help this country to start realizing that whole, natural foods are critical to health. I often tell people a couple of basic rules of nutrition: One is, if it wasn’t a food 100 years ago, it probably isn’t a food today. Secondly, if it comes through the car window, it isn’t food. So much of what people eat today is a chemical product that has been processed, and when you really look at what it is and read the label, you’d be better off eating the box and throwing the contents away, because the box would at least give you some fiber.

Is there a way of promoting healthier lifestyles from a federal level?

One thing is that the marketplace is moving. Every food company with whom I’ve spoken has told me that the growth of their marketplace is in the healthier food choices.

We’re not going to solve it all overnight, but we can start making a genuine transition to healthier, more whole-food products, doing more to subsidize fruits and vegetables, rather than just the processed food, and creating the appetites in children by exposing them more to fruits and vegetables at the marketplace, and the schools, and their homes and neighborhoods.

On a personal level, what have you done to lighten your environmental footprint?

We have a flex-fuel vehicle. We are changing all of the lights in our house to fluorescent. We just replaced our heating and air-conditioning systems with the highest-level SEER-rated models, so that they would run on 60 percent less energy than what we had been using. I run and enjoy the outdoors and I often ride my bicycle to the store. My kids laugh at me and call me an old geezer, but I love it. Several years ago, I would have driven.