The Renewable Energy Lie

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Gage Skidmore

If there was one number Gov. Mitt Romney wanted ingrained in the heads of viewers tuned into last week’s presidential debate it was this: $90 billion. It’s the amount, claimed Romney on five separate occasions during the debate, that president Obama had doled out in “breaks” to the “green energy world” in the past year. The number wins for shock value, but not for truthfulness. Fact checkers at Politifact.com (run by the Tampa Bay Times) declared the $90 billion assertion flat-out “false” on their truth-o-meter.

The figure itself came from a clean energy program portion of the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus bill, an act that’s been effective over several years, not one, as suggested by Romney. And of the $90 billion set aside for energy projects, only a small percentage was directed to loans for clean technology companies.

To back up his argument, Romney named a handful of companies that he claimed were recipients of this federal windfall, including the famously failed solar company Solyndra and electric-battery maker Ener1. The two companies reports Politifact, “qualified for less than $700 million in grants and loan guarantees, and didn’t use it all.” Two other companies Romney named—electric car companies Fisker and Tesla—received no money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act , though the car companies did get loan guarantees under President George W. Bush.

A large percentage of that $90 billion was spent on projects having nothing to do with renewable energy investments, including energy efficiency retrofits for low-income houses, high speed rail-building projects and efforts to modernize the electrical grid. These other projects accounted for more than 60% of the $90 billion to which Romney referred. And that money was not handed out to specific companies but divided among states who hired contractors for individual projects.

Another fact-checking site, FactCheck.org which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, declared false Romney’s claim that “about half” the renewable energy companies receiving stimulus money went belly-up. Of 26 companies that received loan guarantees under Obama’s stimulus program—loan guarantees that in total represented $16 billion—just three have filed for bankruptcy. Those three represent just 6% of the loan guarantees.

During the debate, Romney also compared loans to clean energy companies with tax breaks to oil and gas companies. He said to Obama: “And in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives. And you say Exxon and Mobil. Actually, this $2.8 billion goes largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.”

Not only were the stimulus loans administered over several years and grossly exaggerated in scope, but FactCheck.org notes that even by Romney’s own accounting standards ($2.8 billion per year) his math is wrong, as $2.8 billion x 50 = $140 billion, not $90 billion. But the fossil fuel industry receives much more than that in tax breaks, more like $3.9 billion per year according to Congressional research.

It may be difficult for fact checkers to set the record straight now that the $90 billion seed has been planted. In any case, recent research reveals that what people believe about climate change may have more to do with their politics than scientific facts anyway. According to survey data collected by the University of New Hampshire, political beliefs in many cases determine beliefs about human-induced climate change.

Lawrence Hamilton, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and study author said: “Even well-established observations may be discounted in favor of ideologically more palatable claims available to anyone with television or an Internet connection.”