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After decades of controlling America’s energy narrative, on January 5, CBS’s 60 Minutes fired a shot that has put the green lobby on the defensive. The next day, two very different media outlets lobbed blows that could represent a new trend; a change of tone in Washington.
The 60 Minutes piece, featuring correspondent Lesley Stahl, aired, perhaps intentionally, at a time when it may have had the lowest possible viewership, as it aired opposite the NFL playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. You may have missed it. But environmental/renewable-energy believers took the hit—and they are pushing back.
Stahl opened “The cleantech crash” with:
About a decade ago, the smart people who funded the Internet turned their attention to the energy sector, rallying tech engineers to invent ways to get us off fossil fuels, devise powerful solar panels, clean cars, and futuristic batteries. The idea got a catchy name: ‘Cleantech.’ Silicon Valley got Washington excited about it. President Bush was an early supporter, but the federal purse strings truly loosened under President Obama. Hoping to create innovation and jobs, he committed north of a $100 billion in loans, grants and tax breaks to Cleantech. But instead of breakthroughs, the sector suffered a string of expensive tax-funded flops. Suddenly Cleantech was a dirty word.
Midway through the segment, Stahl states: “Well, Solyndra went through over half a billion dollars before it failed. Then I’m gonna give you a list of other failures: Abound Energy, Beacon Power, Fisker, V.P.G., Range Fuels, Ener1, A123, ECOtality. I’m exhausted.”
Regarding Stahl’s list, Bruce Barcott, “who writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment,” in a rant for OnEarth Magazine about the 60 Minutes segment, asks: “Where was the evidence of cleantech’s crash in the ‘60 Minutes’ report?” He continues: “It seemed to boil down to the fact that Solyndra, Fisker, LG Chem, and five other clean tech companies went bankrupt. All true.”
Perhaps, to Barcott, eight bankrupt companies do not offer enough “evidence” to write green energy’s obit. How much would he need?
If Stahl had read the entire list of Obama-backed taxpayer-funded green-energy projects that have gone bust—let alone those that are circling the drain, she would have truly been fatigued. Together with researcher Christine Lakatos, I’ve been following the foibles for the past eighteen months. Our bankrupt list (updated May 2013) includes 25—17 more than Stahl cited (and there have been new failures since then).
Calling the “cleantech crash” segment a “hit piece,” Barcott claims: “the evidence of success is overwhelming.”
In the National Journal’s daily energy newsletter, “Energy Edge,” Amy Harder agrees with Barcott: “The story did not give much credence to successful renewable-energy ventures or to a major impetus for clean energy, which is global warming (as opposed to just job creation).” She adds: “Nonetheless, the report reminds green-energy advocates that Solyndra’s shadow is not nearly gone.”
For RenewableEnergyWorld.com, Scott Sklar, a DC lobbyist for clean, distributed-energy users and companies using renewable energy, claims: “In reality, clean energy has never looked better.” He called the 60 Minutes segment a “bash fest” and suggested: it “seemed like it was co-written by the Koch Brothers.”
For the National Journal, Ben Geman wrote: “Green-Energy Battle Flares Over ‘60 Minutes’ Report.” He concludes: “The report and the response are the latest thrust and parry over White House backing for green-energy projects that have faced heavy GOP criticism. The Energy Department—which Stahl said declined to grant her an interview—hit back on Sunday night. The department has for years noted that failed or badly struggling companies represent only a very small portion of the overall green-energy loan portfolio. ‘Simply put, 60 Minutes is flat wrong on the facts. The clean-energy economy in America is real, and we are more competitive than ever in this rapidly expanding global industry. This is a race we can, must, and will win,’ spokesman William Gibbons said in a statement.”
Ironically, while the believers busily “hit back,” the news tells a different story.
One of the projects featured by 60 minutes is KiOR—a Columbus, Mississippi, plant that turns wood products into gasoline, diesel, and fuel oil funded in part by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla—has shut down in a “cost-cutting move.” A January 9 report states: “the debate in Washington in changing alternative fuel standards drove down prices so low that the company couldn’t afford to continue production for now until it can get efficiencies to the point where it is producing at least 80 gallons of fuel for every ton of wood.” Even if Khosla’s KiOR is able to improve efficiencies to “80 gallons of fuel for every ton of wood”—which would be about four times the current production—that is still a terrible return. (Incidentally, Khosla started the bankrupt Range Fuels that was mentioned by Lesley Stahl in her brief list of failed “cleantech” programs.)
Robert Rapier, also featured in the 60 Minutes segment—which focused primarily on biofuels—reported on the Department of Energy’s follow up audit for Financial Assistance for Integrated Biorefinery Projects. Among his “results,” Rapier states: “40 percent of the demonstration-scale and commercial-scale projects selected from the FOAs [Funding Opportunity Announcements] were mutually terminated by the DOE and the recipients after expending more than $75 million in taxpayer dollars.” He cites the audit: “Program officials acknowledged the projects selected were not fully ready for commercial-scale operations and that the projects were high-risk. However, they indicated that the EPAct required them to move forward with commercial-scale projects…” Rapier concludes: “I think the lesson here is that political wishes continue to trump scientific realities, and taxpayers are left to pay the bills. … If only our political leaders understood that you can’t mandate technical breakthroughs, even if you require money to be spent trying to do so.”
Hardly the “overwhelming success” 60 Minutes’ detractors proclaim.
Barcott defends use of taxpayer money to support “emerging technologies” and acknowledges that “asking hard questions about if and when we should cut off that support” is, well, “hard.”
All of this “thrust and parry” is taking place during the time Congress is considering retroactively extending various tax breaks for cleantech projects—such as the Production Tax Credit for wind energy that expired on December 31, 2013. Amid the blows fired upon the renewable energy industry this past week, the Chicago Tribune (hardly a defender of right-wing policies) piled on with a January 5 op-ed encouraging “Congress and the White House to stop manipulating the tax code as America’s de facto energy policy: Thorough federal tax reform should sunset this arbitrary favoritism for wind energy and other politically favored industries.”
The other lobs, from CNBC and Fox News, landed on January 6.
CNBC’s Kudlow Report featured a “what happened to global warming” segment in which Larry Kudlow scoffs at the “all wrong” predictions that have now “come unglued.” His guest, Steve Hayward—a visiting professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder—stated: “Global warming is going away” like so many other scares before it. Hayward claimed that environmental crises follow a pattern: “Find a problem and blow it up into a world-ending crisis and demand endless political solutions.” Yucking it up, they laughed at the “sheer comedy of the ship getting stuck in the ice in Antarctica,” calling it “an eco-tourism stunt that backfired badly.”
On Fox Business, Stuart Varney’s “Stuart Says” feature was: “Annoying greenies influence policy that hurts U.S.” In his 2-minute-18-second monologue, Varney suggests that we “respond to this climate change demagoguery with ridicule. Frankly, the global warming crowd now looks ridiculous. People are laughing at them.”
Yes, the “annoying greenies” are on the defense—and, as the Green Bay players on that cold January 5 in Wisconsin knew, you can’t win on the defense.