January 17, 2013

From Skeptic to Supporter: Former GOP Rep. Shifts Climate Views

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Former Rep. Bob Inglis, Sr. (R-S.C.) shifted from being “completely dismissive of climate change” to an active proponent of economically viable, environmentally friendly energy sources. Inglis, who spoke at Cornell on Thursday, sat down with The Sun to talk about his views on energy policy.

The Sun: What sparked your interest in climate change and energy?

Bob Inglis, Sr.: At first, I was completely dismissive of climate science. I said that climate change was a figment of Al Gore’s imagination; that was my first six years in Congress. … When I ran again in 2004, my son was voting for the first time, and he told me, “I’ll vote for you, Dad, but you gotta clean up your act on the environment.” I realized he’s an important constituency that I have to be relevant to.

The second reason: I got on the [House Committee on Science, Space and Technology] and went to Antarctica. There, I saw evidence that was really persuasive to me … ice core drillings. In that 5,000 feet of ice, there’s a record of the earth’s atmosphere where carbon dioxide levels over time can be plotted. What it shows is stability, followed by a rise and uptick that starts with the Industrial Revolution. I’m not a scientist, but that just makes common sense.

Sun: After you left Capitol Hill, you founded a non-profit: the Energy and Enterprise Initiative. What’s the main goal of the organization?

B.I.: We hope to convince conservatives of the strength of their own ideas and … that they have the answer to climate change: free enterprise. When we tax negative externalities associated with burning fossil fuels, substitutions [of energy sources] will take place and people will seek out other technologies that will drive expansion of the economy. It’s all bedrock, conservative, growth-oriented kind of stuff. That’s what we’re trying to convince them.

Sun: You say that there’s no economic incentive to innovate without energy firms paying the full price of their products.

B.I.: Right. In fact, it doesn’t make sense to innovate as long as [carbon dioxide] emitters are able to continue to socialize costs and privatize profits. I as an individual consumer can’t affect that — it’s economically irrational for me to seek out better technology because I’ll be dumped on anyway.

Sun: What are the invisible costs of energy you say consumers are paying for when we line up at gas stations to fill our tanks?

B.I.: It’s the title of Milton Friedman’s 1975 book: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. This is what conservatives believe. But isn’t it interesting that, in this era, we apparently believe we’re somehow not paying the full cost of coal or electricity? We pay the full cost of coal not at the meter. … We’re paying higher health insurance costs, through Medicare, taxes, through general revenue for Medicaid, and through the cost shift at hospitals.

Sun: Without paying the full price of energy, then, you think there’s no incentive for innovation?

B.I.: Yes, because if I paid at the meter, I’d be innovating right now in South Carolina, or installing a solar hot-water heater. I’m not calling because, with kids in college, I can’t afford to be altruistic. But if I were paying the real price at the meter, then it would become economically rational for me to call the solar hot-water heater. I’m not an economist, physicist or chemist, but I think this is bedrock economics.

Sun: Another appeal to the conservative platform you raise is that not innovating is detrimental to the U.S.’ national security. Can you talk a little bit about that?

B.I.: I feel as if we’re stepping into a trap in thinking that we’re going to have petroleum self-sufficiency when, in fact, what we’re doing is extending the strategic importance of that commodity … which means that OPEC can ramp down its production until we have sucked all of ours up and burned it, and then they are still in the game with a strategic commodity, and we have not innovated. If we saw the real cost of petroleum, we would be innovating toward other fuels.

Sun: What do you see as the government’s role in this, then?

B.I.: The government must be the cop on the beat. You can’t get away with socializing costs and privatizing profits. Government must play the role and say everybody must be accountable … that there has to be an accountable marketplace, a true cost comparison between fuels and no subsidies.

Sun: As a proponent of alternative energies, what is your view on hydrofracking?

B.I.: I think it is a good near-term alternative. We should be very thankful for the expansion of the supply of natural gas, because it is helping us achieve emission reductions that are substantial. In South Carolina, for example, six coal fire plants are being converted into natural gas plants, which means a lot of South Carolina will breathe easier.

As to the specifics of the impacts of fracking … it seems like a logical improvement would be to have a disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and transparency there … and studies on whether fracking causes fractures that end with methane reaching through other cracks and services into groundwater.

Sun: What do you think about President Barack Obama’s energy platform?

B.I.: I think the president has an opportunity to be the post-partisan president that he might have wanted to be when it comes to energy. What he can do is if he wants to be that post-partisan guy is recognize that cap and trade is graveyard dead, reach out to conservatives and say, what proposal could we work on that could use the strengths of free enterprise to accomplish the sentiments of progressives? The sentiments of progressives are to deal with climate change and the strengths of conservatives are solutions that use the power of free enterprise and cause innovation to happen rapidly. So I think that this is a great opportunity for him if he wants to take it.

Now, of course, the challenge for him is we’re all sort of stuck in our constituencies. There’s a real distrust of conservatives by the environmental community and vice versa, so when he wades through those waters, he’ll be going cross culturally.

Sun: That sounds like what you did.

B.I.: Yes, that was the problem for me [laughs]. But he doesn’t have to run again, so he may as well leap.

Sun: Final question: What do you see as the ideal outcome?

B.I.: Eliminating all subsidies for all fuels, attaching all costs to fuels and taxing things that you want less of and making things you want free from taxation. We want more income, let’s untax it. We want less pollution, let’s tax it. It’s a triple play this American century: we have the opportunity to create jobs through innovation, improve our national security by moving away from dependence on strategic commodities and third, clean up the air.

Original Author: Akane Otani