A month after joining Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in a televised call to fight climate change in 2008, Newt Gingrich pivoted to a much different message: Increase domestic drilling and block legislation aimed at implementing a “cap-and-trade” system to curb carbon pollution.
“We could drill here, drill now and pay less,” Gingrich said in a May 2008 video for his now-defunct nonprofit group, American Solutions for Winning the Future.
Within weeks, the money began pouring in from major U.S. energy firms, which eventually contributed more than $2 million to American Solutions’ pro-drilling and anti-cap-and-trade campaign for the next two years, according to a review of disclosure reports and other records by The Washington Post.
The top contributors included Peabody Energy of St. Louis, which gave $825,000, and Devon Energy of Oklahoma City, which contributed $500,000.
The push marked a key turning point in Gingrich’s eclectic history on energy issues, which previously included alliances with Democrats such as former vice president Al Gore and consulting work for ethanol firms seeking to maintain lucrative federal subsidies.
The episode also illustrates the close financial ties between Gingrich and many of the interest groups whose causes he championed. The former House speaker has come under fire from his GOP rivals for taking tens of millions of dollars from Freddie Mac, health-care firms and other interest groups in the past decade.
In late May 2008, for example, Gingrich recorded an American Solutions video that urged greater use of coal because “we have more coal than anyone else in the world.” Three weeks later, Peabody — the world’s largest coal producer — gave its first donation of $250,000 to Gingrich’s group.
Peabody spokeswoman Meg Gallagher said the firm donated because American Solutions “was advancing a balanced energy policy that sought greater production of all forms of energy, including coal.”
A campaign spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Gingrich’s energy policies. A statement on the Gingrich campaign’s Web site says the candidate “believes that conservatives cannot be absent from the conversation about the environment” and that he “has supported pro-market, pro-entrepreneur, innovative solutions to our environmental challenges” throughout his career.
The influence of the American Solutions domestic-energy campaign can be seen in the way it helped shape the 2008 presidential race, as GOP nominee John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, adapted Gingrich’s slogan for their “Drill, baby, drill” rallying cry. Gingrich also credits the effort with helping to quash cap-and-trade legislation in Congress.
“I never favored cap and trade and actively testified against it,” Gingrich said on Fox News earlier this month. “Through American Solutions . . . we played a major role in defeating it.”
But a review of Gingrich’s public statements and advocacy activities in the past two decades paints a more complicated picture.
Gingrich frequently spoke in favor of cap-and-trade programs, which allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits, as a “green conservative” approach to limiting greenhouse gases. He was particularly fond of citing the success of a federal cap-and-trade effort focused on lowering sulfur dioxide emissions, which is credited with lessening the “acid rain” problem caused by coal-fired power plants.
“I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good,” Gingrich said in a 2007 interview with PBS’s “Frontline.” “And frankly, it’s something I would strongly support.”
He sat beside Pelosi outside the U.S. Capitol in April 2008 to record a TV ad on climate change sponsored by Gore’s Repower America campaign. After Pelosi acknowledges their obvious disagreements, Gingrich says: “But we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.”
His GOP rivals, led by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have criticized the appearance. Romney has joined Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) in attacking Gingrich’s past environmental stances and his lucrative financial relationships with corporations and industry groups.
The former House speaker has responded by pointing to the antiregulation campaign by American Solutions. Gingrich appeared in TV commercials, gave testimony and held news conferences on Capitol Hill decrying a succession of proposed cap-and-trade bills in 2008 and 2009 as “energy taxes” that would hurt the elderly and poor and weaken the economy.
He also favored continuing federal subsidies for ethanol at a time when he was being paid $600,000 as a consultant to Growth Energy, a pro-ethanol industry group, according to news media reports.
Besides Peabody and Devon, other top givers to American Solutions included Plains Exploration and Production, a Houston oil-and-gas firm that gave $200,000, and American Electric Power, which contributed a total of $400,000.
AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry said Gingrich’s group approached the Columbus, Ohio-based firm seeking financial support for its pro-drilling and pro-mining campaign. But AEP’s chairman, Michael Morris, also supported congressional efforts to enact cap-and-trade legislation as a preferable alternative to other approaches, McHenry said.
“They were contributions based on their positions on domestic energy issues that we agreed with,” McHenry said. “But we didn’t agree with them on everything.”
Representatives of Devon, Plains Exploration and several other contributors did not respond to requests for comment.
Rick Tyler, a longtime Gingrich aide who now serves as a senior adviser to a “super PAC” supporting his candidacy, said the “Drill Here, Drill Now” campaign was easily the largest and most successful advocacy effort by American Solutions, which dissolved earlier this year after 41 / 2 years of existence. He said it was “no secret” that energy companies donated to the group.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that people give money to a cause they support,” Tyler said.