Grist and Outside

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

Update: Bill Richardson dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 10, 2008.

Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson.

Bill Richardson likes to play up his image as a horse-ridin’, gun-totin’ man of the Wild West, but don’t be distracted by the cowboy swagger — the Democratic governor of New Mexico also has a serious policy wonk side. That was on full display in May when he unveiled a broad and ambitious climate and energy plan. Billing himself as the “energy president,” he’s now calling for a 90 percent cut to greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, a renewable-energy target of 50 percent by 2040, and a 50-mile-per-gallon fuel-economy standard by 2020.

Richardson is no newcomer to energy issues, of course — he served as secretary of energy at the end of the Clinton administration, and has aggressively pushed clean energy as governor of New Mexico. But some greens might not care for his “clean coal” boosterism or his embrace of “all kinds of biofuel.”

I rang up the governor at his office in Santa Fe, N.M., to size up his energy and environmental vision.

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


You’ve dubbed yourself the “energy president.” Why did you choose that moniker?

Right now, the most important domestic and national-security issues involve America becoming energy independent and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. I believe it’s going to take an “energy president” who will lead this country toward these goals by asking all Americans to sacrifice for the common good and be more energy-efficient and promote a green style of living.

Many of the candidates are trying to paint themselves as the green candidate. What makes your platform stronger than the others’?

On energy, both the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have stated that my plan is the most aggressive, with the strongest timetables.

But what differentiates myself from other candidates is I’ve actually done it. I’ve done it as energy secretary in the Clinton administration by tightening air-conditioning energy-use standards by 30 percent, building a strong portfolio of renewable energy, and promoting 100-mile-per-gallon vehicles through a fuel-efficiency initiative with the auto companies.

Then, as governor of New Mexico, I believe we have the most clean-energy initiatives of any state. We have a renewable portfolio standard going to 20 percent by 2020. Our state is on track to observe the Kyoto treaty. We have no taxes on hybrid vehicles. We’re the first in the country to export wind energy. We also have a number of incentives for solar, wind, biomass, biodiesel, and distributed-generation fuel cells.

I was also probably one of the most active pro-environment congressmen. I pursued and made law a number of national parks, wilderness areas, river protections, and air-quality standards. When I was on the committee [overseeing the] Interior [Department], I worked on bills including the Jemez National Recreation Area and the South San Juan Wilderness.

You’ve vowed as president to mandate a 90 percent greenhouse-gas emission reduction by 2050 –

I’ve also proposed a strong standard in the short term: 20 percent reductions by 2020.

These goals are even stronger than some environmental groups are calling for. Why such dramatic targets?

Because we can’t wait. It’s a matter of necessity. It’s important because it involves our national security. Our energy dependence on foreign oil is so unhealthy — we could be vulnerable to an oil price shock, to $5-per-gallon gasoline prices, to long lines at the pumps. What I’m also advocating is a dramatic shift in mass transit, like I’ve done here in New Mexico with the Rail Runner. But we’d have, nationally, transportation policies that promote sensible land use — not just proposing highway funding bills, but bills to establish light rail and bullet trains and more energy-efficient transportation. Also, land-use policies that advocate open space. This is for a better quality of life for all our people.

Are your climate goals as much informed by your concern about energy independence as they are about climate change?

Yes.

As president, would you subsidize the development of technologies, such as liquefied coal, that could worsen global warming, even if they would boost energy independence?

I’m for clean coal, but I’m not a big fan of liquefied. I do not believe that coal-to-liquids technologies represent a viable solution for the future because of the associated carbon dioxide emissions. I will push for a well-to-wheels low-carbon fuel requirement that reduces the carbon impact of our liquid fuels by 30 percent by 2020, including alternative fuels that will substitute for about 10 percent of our gasoline demand.

But coal does belong in a clean-energy future?

I believe that carbon-clean coal will play a role in our energy future. There have gotta be some very strict clean-coal standards. I’m not an advocate for continuing to use old oil, coal, and nuclear. They all have to be part of a mix, but in the past, those three have received an inordinate amount of subsidies and tax incentives at the expense of renewable energy. It’s important to emphasize that the future is in renewable energy, renewable fuel, conservation measures. It’s in buildings that are 50 percent more energy-efficient, solar roofs in schools, 50-mile-per-gallon vehicles by 2030.

What about nuclear — can you expand on that? It sounds like you think coal and nuclear need to be part of the energy mix, but they shouldn’t be subsidized?

Yes. My dramatic preference would be for clean coal. I oppose the construction of those coal plants in Texas — too many subsidies for the coal industry. And I opposed giving a tax incentive in New Mexico to just a regular coal plant that’s proposed here, Desert Rock. I can’t be the champion of global climate change and have a new coal plant that isn’t clean.

Do you think we’ll have to expand nuclear capacity?

Nuclear has to be part of the mix, but I would eliminate the subsidies that nuclear and coal and oil got from the last energy bill and shift those to renewable energy, to a more equal playing field.

Nuclear will not be able to move forward unless we resolve the waste issue. The [Yucca Mountain] site in Nevada has significant water, environmental, and transportation problems with it. The other alternative of putting nuclear waste at existing regional sites around the country is not going to work. I favor a technological solution — let’s get our best scientists at the national labs to find a way to dispose of this nuclear waste safely. Until that is resolved, nuclear should not get any advantages.

What role do you think ethanol and biofuels should play in a 21st-century energy system?

A very important role, both of them — all kinds of biofuel, biodiesel. We need to have more fuel-efficient fuels.

We should provide incentives for distribution by, for example, helping gas stations convert at least one pump to handle E85 or other biofuels. The federal government also should use its purchasing power — as we have done in New Mexico — to transform the energy marketplace by, for example, purchasing more hybrid and flex-fuel cars for its own use.

And I believe in cooperative ventures with other countries. I would expand our ties to Latin America with more collaboration in renewable energy and technology. That’s the future for that region, what Brazil has done with ethanol, for instance — they’re totally energy self-sufficient.

You are a strong supporter of both corn and cellulosic ethanol. How, specifically, will you structure policies that transition the U.S. away from corn ethanol and toward cellulosic?

Our goal should be bold — to replace 20 percent of liquid transportation fuels with biofuels by 2020. We should significantly ramp up federal investments in the research and development of biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol.

You have a strong incentive for electric cars in your auto proposal. Do you think electric cars will win out over biofuel cars?

They will all be part of the mix. We in New Mexico were very proud to get Tesla Motors to move here from California. It’s the perfect combination for us: it’s high-tech jobs plus clean energy.

Do you think climate and energy will be front-burner concerns in the 2008 election?

Absolutely. They are among the most important issues in the presidential campaign. The first is Iraq, the second is a close tie between universal health care and energy independence.

You’ve said on the one hand that voters need to be willing to sacrifice some of their creature comforts for a new energy landscape, but also that Americans should be able to keep SUVs. Can you explain this contradiction?

What I’m asking for is not sacrifice, like Americans wearing sweaters and turning the heat down. What I’m asking for is being more energy-efficient with appliances, with vehicles, with mass transit. Maybe, instead of driving to work, once a month go mass transit.

I believe very strongly in what John F. Kennedy asked all Americans to do and that’s sacrifice a little bit for the collective good. We need, as a moral imperative, to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel because it’s in our national interest that we do so as a nation. It’s going to take a president to lead this dramatic shift and not just little energy bills. We need to energize every American to become green.

But Americans will be able to keep their SUVs because the technology is improving?

Yes. You can have an SUV with a fuel-efficient engine. We do have the technology to achieve this.

You say your energy programs are going to produce 10 times more value than they cost, right? How does this math add up?

Our energy programs are going to be great for the economy mainly because they are going to create two sets of new jobs in this country — one in renewable technology, which are high-wage, high-skill jobs, and the second in retrofitting homes for the construction industry, also higher-wage jobs. It will be not just a job boom, but a technological boom.

So that boom in jobs will add up to 10 times more than the cost of jumpstarting that trend?

Absolutely.

Can Detroit achieve the sharp fuel-economy standards you’re proposing — an increase to 50 mpg by 2020?

Detroit will benefit from this. We’ve got the technology. They need a little gentle prodding and they need incentives, but Detroit has always stepped up with ingenuity. They must realize that to keep jobs in America, to be part of this globalized world, they gotta compete. I’m not at all averse to giving Detroit tax incentives for these vehicles or having the government jointly invest in R&D with them, rather than clubbing them over the head.

In 2005, you signed an environmental justice order [PDF] in New Mexico. How would you address environmental justice as president?

I would issue an executive order that would respect neighborhoods, especially in minority areas; I would make it part of a “Quality of Life Initiative.” It would have several components: promoting environmental justice, as well as a new open-space policy, a smart land-use policy, and a new transportation policy that would emphasize light rail and more energy-efficient transportation.

After climate and energy, what do you think is the most important environmental issue facing the nation?

Protecting our parks, not drilling in ecosystems and offshore areas, the need to create more open space and wilderness areas, and finding ways to conserve water more effectively are critically important.

Who is your environmental hero?

Mo Udall, because he gave me, when I first came into Congress, a very good environmental ethic. I remember him taking me to Alaska where we worked on the Alaska wilderness initiatives. He was a Western environmentalist — I patterned myself after him.

And Al Gore deserves enormous credit for pushing global climate change.

You often talk about your love of the wilds of New Mexico and the outdoors in general. Can you describe your inner cowboy?

I own a horse — that’s my main recreational activity. His name is Sundance. I love to go out into the mountains of Santa Fe and spend time with him. That’s my main recreation. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time for it.

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

Yellowstone.

What have you done personally to lighten your environmental footprint?

We got a Ford Escape hybrid for the governor’s fleet and an ethanol vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe FlexFuel that can run on E85. The governor’s mansion has energy-efficient windows, and we’ve installed compact fluorescent bulbs wherever possible. We also are involved in a renewable-purchasing program that supplies 90 percent of the electricity from solar and wind. We’ve also made water-conservation improvements to the residence, like low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads, xeriscaping, and a water-efficient irrigation system.

If George Bush were a plant or animal, what kind of plant or animal would he be?

Stubborn like an ox, immovable like an oak.