On cleantech, no Newt is good Newt
Cross-posted from Climate Progress.
In the 1990s, the Gingrich Congress tried to shut down the Department of Energy (DOE), slash all clean energy research, stop the joint government-industry effort to develop a super-efficient hybrid car, and zero out all programs aimed specifically at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating technology deployment.
He didn’t succeed — but he did stop the significant expansion of clean energy funding Clinton-Gore had begun. And he did force the DOE to sharply scale back its programs aimed at clean energy deployment and greenhouse gas reduction.
A decade later he tried to pass himself as a friend to the environment. In 2007, he wrote A Contract with the Earth. As I wrote at the time, if you look up the word “Orwellian” on Wikipedia — “An attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past” — there should be a picture of Newt’s book.
To cut to the chase, readers will not be surprised that a conservative pretending to care about the environment adopted the anti-regulation, pro-technology approach suggested by GOP strategist, Frank Luntz, and popularized by his protege, George Bush.
Since Gingrich continues to push this misdirection, I’ll excerpt some of my earlier posts on Newt.
Newt famously coauthored and then worked to enact the anti-environmental Contract With America (CWA). But Newt tried to rewrite history with Salon:
I don’t think that the environment was a central focus of the Contract With America. I don’t think that it was bad for the environment. I don’t know of a single thing in the Contract that was bad for the environment.
I think Salon had to pause in the interview at that point to allow Newt to douse the flames that began engulfing his trousers. In fact, the CWA was a clever, stealthy attack on the environment as detailed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in a lengthy analysis (summarized here), and by the Sierra Club and by the National Wildlife Federation, which wrote at the time: “Taken as a whole, the House plan constitutes the broadest and deepest attack ever mounted against laws that protect public health, the environment, natural resources and wildlife.”
The only thing more gut-busting than Gingrich claiming that the CWA and related legislation wasn’t bad for the environment is his embrace of technology as the answer to climate/energy problems.
Last year, Newt proposed replacing the EPA with an “Environmental Solutions Agency.” It’s no surprise that Newt is unaware we already have an Environmental Solutions Agency that develops innovative new technology — it’s called the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which I helped run in the mid-1990s. Gingrich tried to kill it when he became speaker in 1995. He probably thinks he succeeded.
It should leave everyone holding their sides that when Salon asked Newt a few years ago, “What do you think that the U.S. should do about global warming right now?” He answered:
I think we should have a billion-dollar tax-free prize for a hydrogen engine that can be produced at a commercially available price. I think that we should have a substantial prize for developing the first engine that can be mass produced that gets 100 miles or more to the gallon of fuel. I think that we should have a substantial research program under way for dramatically better ethanol products than corn or cane sugar.
We should have a 100 percent tax write-off for investment in the technology needed to make composite-material cars using the material comparable to that which works in the 787 Dreamliner that Boeing is building. Because composite material is stronger than steel and much, much lighter than steel, and you could produce a safer car at lighter weight, which would get dramatically more mileage.
Unless you can create economically desirable, environmentally positive technologies, you are never going to get China and India to adopt.
Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah. Same as Luntz, Bush, Michael Crichton, Bjorn Lomborg, and the rest of the global warming delayers. This phony environmentalism is what I call the technology trap in Hell and High Water.
This answer also ended any claim that Gingrich is a tech-savvy person. After all, you can build an affordable hydrogen engine today: It’s called an internal combustion engine (which can easily be modified to burn hydrogen), but it is low-efficiency, and thus worthless (since hydrogen production is also an inefficient process). What the Department of Energy has been trying to do for over a decade with Detroit — a program the Gingrich Congress (and the automakers!) ironically tried to gut — is build an affordable high-efficiency hydrogen fuel cell. And the hydrogen advocates claim fuel cells would be commercial today — if we could only get unit sales of fuel cell cars to a few hundred thousand a year (up from zero today).
Moreover, a viable hydrogen engine without a solution to the hydrogen storage problem or tens of thousands of hydrogen fueling stations around the country (costing tens of billions of dollars) is completely useless. So this prize idea is dumb. A pure waste of government dollars of a kind Newt used to mock.
To beat this near-dead hydrogen horse, let me note that Gingrich goes on to say:
If you had a hydrogen car and the French level of nuclear power production for electricity, you’d have a very high quality of life, great mobility, lots of electricity, and virtually no carbon-loading. You can create very advanced technological solutions that dramatically improve life in a way that’s better. The quality of air in California is better than it was 30 years ago. The quality of water in the country is better than it was 30 years ago.
Seriously! First, even forgetting the problems with building hundreds of new nuclear plants to more than quadruple U.S. nuclear capacity — at a cost of many trillions of dollars (see here), basing your transportation system on cars using hydrogen made from zero-carbon electricity is possibly the dumbest transportation policy idea ever conceived as I explain in my Energy Policy article, “The car and fuel of the future” [PDF].
Why is California’s air — and the country’s water — better than it was 30 years ago? Gingrich disingenuously implied the answer is “very advanced technological solutions that dramatically improve life,” but, in fact, the answer is very tough government regulations — indeed, California is allowed tougher air regulations than the rest of the country, as Newt must know since he is so damn smart.
Yes the environmental gains Gingrich praised and used to defend a “technology only” strategy were made possible by the kind of regulations Gingrich tried to gut in the 1990s and that he continues to oppose today — including a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions:
We have been caught in a trap where environmental solutions are defined on the left as higher taxes, bigger government, more regulation and more litigation, and so conservatives just shrug their shoulders; since they oppose all four of those solutions, they refuse to get engaged in environmental issues.
One of the major reasons that Terry Maple and I wrote A Contract With the Earth was to reopen the debate, and to say that there are solutions which involve incentives, science and technology and markets. Entrepreneurs are potentially much more powerful and successful than regulatory and litigation solutions. We ought to be having a dialogue about which solution works better rather than being engaged in a purely partisan debate to see who can yell “anti-environmentalist” more.
As someone who fought for years against the Gingrich Congress’ assault on incentives and technology and market-based solutions, I can only laugh at Gingrich’s attempt to rewrite and whitewash history.
If you seriously think we could end up with 80 percent of our power from nuclear energy (like France) and hydrogen cars also running on nukes any time soon — without any major new regulations — and if you think that outcome would be a good strategy for dealing with global warming (and assuming you buy anything this used-car salesman is selling), then Newt is your guy.
Otherwise, try to enjoy the unintentional humor from Gingrich’s public statements. It’s the only positive thing Newt has to contribute to the debate.