Mitt Romney's Disastrous Energy Plan

The Republicans are offering up a blueprint for environmental ruin - more drilling, less wildlife and a climate gone crazy

romney's energy plan
Illustration by Victor Juhasz
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The smirk appeared on Mitt Romney's face near the end of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. President Obama, he said, had "promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans" and to "heal the planet." Here Romney paused, giving the crowd in Tampa a moment to savor the fact that he was about to turn climate change – arguably the greatest challenge civilization has ever faced – into a joke. "My promise," he said, "is to help you and your family."

The smirk summed up everything you need to know about the GOP's addiction to fossil fuels. Even George W. Bush – a Texas oilman and loyal servant to Big Oil – paid lip service to the importance of clean energy and the risks of climate change. But what Romney and the Republicans are offering voters this November isn't a coherent energy plan. It's a suicide note.

The nut of Romney's plan, such as it is, goes like this: Because of technological innovations like fracking, America is awash in gas and oil that we're now able to reach. If we drill the hell out of everything, including protected public lands and fragile regions like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America can emerge as an "energy superpower." This "drill, baby, drill" policy, the Republicans claim, will lower energy prices, create 3 million new jobs, add $500 billion to the gross domestic product, boost tax revenues by $1 trillion and strengthen national security by increasing "freedom from dependence on foreign energy supplies."

This fantasy is not only a blueprint for polluting the planet and speeding up climate change – it's also precisely the energy policy that David and Charles Koch, the billionaire conservative oilmen who have pledged $400 million to help defeat Obama, would advocate if they were sitting in the Oval Office. Indeed, America's leading fossil-fuel barons have lined up behind Romney, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into his campaign, as well as the shadow groups and Super PACs that are supporting him. During a recent stop in Texas, Romney raked in nearly $7 million during a single lunch hosted by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and other oil and gas executives. As Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn, puts it: "It's not a stretch to say that the fossil-fuel industry is attempting a hostile takeover of the U.S. political system."

To bring about that takeover this November, Romney recently unveiled his so-called "energy plan" during a campaign stop in New Mexico. His vision for our energy future, like the one outlined in the Republican platform, is big on promises and Obama-bashing but short on specifics. Here are the five key talking points:

SPIN #1: Free at Last

The centerpiece of Romney's energy plan – and the Republican platform – is achieving energy independence by 2020. The slogan is touted as if it were a great and grand call to action, the energy equivalent of the race to the moon. In fact, when Romney talks about "energy independence," what he is really talking about is drilling.

Right now we import about 45 percent of our oil, which means we export about $1 billion a day to places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela. So if we drill more at home, Romney argues, or import more oil from friendly neighbors, we can eliminate our dependence on Arab sheiks and Latin American despots. Romney has vowed to bring in more oil from Canada via the Keystone XL pipeline, open up the coastlines of Virginia and the Carolinas to drilling, and empower states to speed up fracking and drilling on federal lands. Taken together, Romney claims, such moves would double oil production in North America over the next decade. "We won't need to buy any oil from the Middle East or Venezuela or anywhere else we don't want to," he declared in New Mexico.

But according to Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, this notion of energy independence is "a pipe dream." For one thing, because oil is easier and cheaper to transport than coal and natural gas, it's sold on the global market – which means that what we pump out of the ground here doesn't necessarily stay here. The whole point of the Keystone pipeline, for example, is to connect the dirty oil flowing out of Canada's tar sands with refineries on the Gulf Coast, where the oil can be directly shipped to overseas markets. The only way to keep domestic oil in America – even if foreign markets are willing to pay more for it – would be to nationalize the oil industry, a solution that is decidedly not a part of the GOP's energy plan.

In short, when Romney utters the words "energy independence," he's really promoting the idea that we can drill our way to freedom – using a fear of foreigners to justify opening up fragile coastlines and wildlife sanctuaries to the Koch brothers. "The only real path to energy independence is to get off oil completely," says Steve Kretzmann, the executive director of Oil Change International, a group that advocates a transition to clean energy. A serious push for energy independence would begin by reducing the demand for oil, through tougher fuel standards for cars and higher gasoline taxes – measures that Romney refuses to consider.

SPIN #2: Drilling = Jobs

During his speech in New Mexico, Romney claimed that expanding oil and gas production would create 3 million new jobs, including 1 million in manufacturing. "Job creation numbers are always speculative," says Sean Sweeney, head of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University. "With Romney, it's all about voodoo accounting." In fact, the jobs-creation numbers being tossed around by Republicans are pure fantasy. Romney supporter Carly Fiorina recently claimed on Meet the Press that completing the Keystone pipeline would create "over a million jobs." But even TransCanada, the company that will build the pipeline, estimates that it will create only 6,500 jobs a year.

In reality, studies show that investments to spur renewable energy and boost energy efficiency generate far more jobs than oil and coal. A recent report by the Center for American Progress and the University of Massachusetts concluded that $150 billion invested in renewable energy would generate 1.7 million more jobs than the same amount invested in fossil fuels. Another study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that a national standard requiring utilities to obtain at least 25 percent of their power from wind, solar and bioenergy by 2025 would create 297,000 new jobs, generating $13.5 billion in income for rural landowners and $11.5 billion in new tax revenues for local governments. In addition, the private sector has recognized the lucrative opportunities offered by clean energy: In 2010 – for the first time ever – investments in renewable energy surpassed those in fossil fuels.

So why the Republican focus on oil and coal? First, clean energy still suffers from its image as some sort of hippie utopia. "For many working-class voters in places like Ohio, oil and gas and coal are the only 'real' forms of energy," says Kretzmann. "Many people see wind and solar as just toys. So naturally, pandering politicians play to this idea, rather than challenging voters to see that renewable energy is not only growing fast but represents a far smarter and safer bet for the future than continuing with the old ways."

Second, when it comes to campaign contributions, clean energy still can't touch the clout of Big Oil. By the end of August, the oil and gas industry had given more than $36 million to federal candidates and their PACs – nearly 90 percent of it to Republicans. ExxonMobil alone has given more than $1 million so far this year; Sunpower, the most generous solar company, has contributed only $17,000. As Ruben of MoveOn puts it: "You can't separate the Republican energy policy from the fact that the Koch brothers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the election for Romney."

SPIN #3: The GOP Is Clean

Once in a while, Romney lets the phrase "clean energy" slip into one of his speeches. The GOP platform claims it "will encourage and ensure diversified domestic sources of energy." But in Republican­speak, diversifying our energy options means diversifying fossil fuels – creating more sources of oil, gas and coal.

In reality, Republicans have long been at war with clean energy. They have ridiculed investments in solar and wind power, bashed energy-efficiency standards, attacked state moves to promote renewable energy and championed laws that would enshrine taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels while stripping them from wind and solar.

Take the wind-production tax credit, which is set to expire at the end this year. The tax break, which amounts to 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of wind-generated electricity, has allowed wind power to compete against coal, gas and nuclear energy. Today, Iowa gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind, creating 7,000 new jobs and generating $5 billion in private investment. Yet Romney has vowed to kill the wind tax credit – a move that would put some 37,000 jobs at risk, particularly in Midwestern states. Republicans from Iowa have blasted the man from Massachusetts: Rep. Tom Latham says Romney lacks a "full understanding of how important the wind-energy tax credit is for Iowa and our nation," while Sen. Chuck Grassley calls Romney's plan "a knife in my back."

To be fair, Romney is not against all attempts to use the power of the federal government to boost renewable energy – just the effective ones. He supports the current federal mandate requiring 13 billion gallons of ethanol to be used in gasoline this year – a disastrous law that has diverted 40 percent­of the U.S. corn crop into fuel production, done nothing to reduce climate-warming pollution and raised food prices worldwide. "Our ethanol policy is becoming the moral equivalent of shooting some poor Indian farmers," Jeremy Grantham, a leading hedge-fund manager and global-commodities expert, has observed. "Death just comes more slowly and painfully."

SPIN #4: The Market Rules

This talking point is central to the theme of Romney's entire campaign: That unlike President Obama, he's a savvy businessman who understands how the economy works and who won't interfere in the free market. That's why Republicans continue to make such a stink about Solyndra, the solar company that defaulted on a $535 million federal loan. Romney and his surrogates point to Solyndra as proof that government should leave energy to the oil barons. During his convention speech, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan singled out the firm for its "gold-plated connections, subsidized jobs and make-believe markets."

In fact, Solyndra was encouraged to apply for the federal loan not by Obama but by the Bush administration. In addition, the company – which was backed by $1 billion in private capital – failed because of increased competition in the solar industry, which has been booming ever since Obama's stimulus passed. But that hasn't stopped congressional Republicans from issuing subpoenas for 300,000 pages of Solyndra documents and spending $1 million in taxpayer money on a political witch hunt that has uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing or corruption.

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney understood the need to use government money to help jump-start clean energy. In 2003, he created the Green Energy Fund – a $15 million program designed to "provide equity capital, loans and management assistance to Massachusetts-based renewable-energy businesses." That was a sound plan – because in the world of energy, the government already plays a pivotal­ role in propping up the fossil-fuel industry, providing as much as $52 billion a year in annual subsidies. And that doesn't include the other costs that taxpayers and consumers bear for burning fossil fuels: polluted air and water, damaged crops, increased illness and death. The nation's most respected science organization, the National Academy of Sciences, estimates that burning fossil fuels costs Americans $120 billion a year – not counting the costs related to our changing climate, including increased floods and droughts.

When it comes to climate change, Romney is guided by polls, not science. As governor, he accepted the views of climate researchers (it's real and it's happening); as a primary candidate, he mouthed the views of crazy Tea Party denialists (it's a liberal plot to destroy the U.S. economy); now, as his party's nominee, he has adopted the views of establishment corporate denialists (maybe it's happening, but any action would be premature). The GOP platform brings up climate change only to bash it as a job killer. "We oppose any and all cap-and-trade legislation," the platform states – bluntly dismissing a proven, market-based approach to fighting climate change that the GOP once championed as an alternative to a carbon tax.

SPIN #5: Government Sucks

In mid-August, during a campaign stop in Ohio, Romney surrounded himself with coal miners and operators and accused the Obama administration of "waging a war on coal." In Romney's view, Obama – whom he has called the "anti­energy president" – is using the power of federal agencies like the EPA to snuff out the coal industry by regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. If elected, Romney promises to roll back federal regulations that are suffocating the industry. "We have 250 years of coal – why in the heck wouldn't we use it?" Romney said as the miners roared in approval. "We're going to take advantage of our energy resources to save your jobs, to create more jobs."

In fact, Obama is far from an anti-energy zealot. He has called for more offshore drilling, resisted a push to enact tougher federal­standards for fracking, and delayed tighter standards on ozone pollution and other regulatory measures needed to save lives and reduce illness, arguing that the economic impact of the new rules would be too burdensome. Even more telling, domestic oil production has increased under Obama every year he has sat in the Oval Office – making him the first president to achieve such a dubious distinction since Lyndon Johnson.

As for Obama's "war on coal" – well, there isn't one. The coal industry is indeed in steep decline: 124 coal plants have been retired in the past two years, and the percentage of electricity generated from coal has dropped below 40 percent. Things are especially tough in West Virginia, where 2,000 workers have been laid off so far this year, and more mine closures are expected in the months to come.

But the problem isn't that Obama has cracked down on mountaintop removal mining (he hasn't) or passed a tax on carbon pollution (he won't even mention it). The problem is that coal is being killed off by larger economic forces, including the falling price of natural gas and renewable energy, as well as the simple fact that, after 150 years of mining, America's mountains are tapped out. "All the cheap, easy-to-get coal in central Appalachia is gone," says Robert Ukeiley, a noted environmental lawyer in Kentucky. "That's just a geological fact. There is no politician who can change that or scapegoat anybody."

Once upon a time, Romney understood that government regulations are not about killing American industry but about preventing industry from killing Americans. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney fought for environmental controls on a coal plant that was responsible for dozens of premature deaths and 14,400 asthma attacks each year. Announcing the new regulations on coal pollution, Romney declared that he would "not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people."

But now that he's running for president, Romney has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry. In his new view, financed by Big Oil and Big Coal, creating jobs that kill people is apparently the price America must pay to become an energy superpower.

This story is from the September 27th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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From The Archives Issue 1166: September 27, 2012
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