Interview: Newt Gingrich on Energy

During the presidential campaign, voters have heard endless talk about the candidates' plans to overhaul U.S. energy policy. Starting this week the winner will begin working to enact that vision—and, in the process, he'll confront the political and budgetary challenges that have constrained previous presidents from making the country more energy independent. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich understands these challenges better than most, and in a new book, "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less," he outlines his ideas for how America should take control of its energy future. Gingrich, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone. Excerpts:

STONE: Haven't both candidates overplayed the notion of green jobs and green investment boosting the economy?
No, I don't think so. One of the reasons I'm so angry about energy is because we were supposed to have our first future-generation coal plant by 2008. Now it's supposed to be 2016. Meanwhile, the Chinese will open their first plant next year. There's a very high likelihood that the technology that goes around the world and earns royalties will be Chinese. Now that is a terrible comment on American bureaucracy and red tape. These kinds of things can lead to dramatic economic growth. We need to have a very large infrastructure of energy. We need to be competitive.

With countries like China less concerned about the environment, can a better U.S. energy policy really make a big difference?
You actually can solve the environmental problems better in the U.S. [even] at a time when China is building one new coal-burning electric plant per week. [Solutions aren't] going to come from China and India and countries that won't give up growth for the environment. So I think the sound, healthy [policy] is to tax America's energy producers, because we are the country most likely to have very high environmental standards.

What happens to McCain's "all of the above" approach if the Democrats—who favor a more reserved strategy on drilling—take over multiple branches of government in January?
I think the challenge [the Democrats] have is that this is a center-right country. This is a country that would [like to] build nuclear-power plants. We would drill for oil offshore. This is a country that, by a 72 to 18 margin, has more faith in entrepreneurs than bureaucrats to solve our problems. The next time gas is $4 a gallon, people will look at their leaders. If Obama gets to be president, for his entire presidency, the majority of Americans will still have traditional internal-combustion engines.

What do you drive?
I drive an Escalade.

That's quite a guzzler.
Well, it's a hybrid. And I am very much in favor of more biofuels and hydrogen cars. I was driving a Tesla in San Jose and it's a terrific sports car—but it's also a long way from replacing 220 million vehicles.

Even if we increase oil drilling, engineers point to a significant lag time—up to a decade—before new supplies of oil can truly relieve gas prices. Why bother?
We fought the entire Second World War in three years and eight months. Think about that … We haven't had a seismographic survey since 1984 on fuel reserves, so you have new 3-D seismographic capabilities. No one has even tried using them. So we're told on one hand we don't have any capacity, but that we also are not allowed to look.

Don't you worry about the potential devastation of oil spills from offshore drilling?
First of all, there's natural seepage in the Santa Barbara Channel every day. There's natural seepage off Norway every day. It's an inherent part of those natural systems. Even with the oil coming in from Saudi Arabia, those ships still dock in Florida. And the fact is that, statistically, ships are more dangerous.

What do you make of T. Boone Pickens's energy plan?
Wind has a role to play. I would very much favor the federal government helping create the [electrical] transmission system he wants. But on natural gas, you have to ask: how rapidly, talking realistically, can you really convert vehicles to run on natural gas? That is a huge project. I don't think it fulfills the requirement for the foreseeable future. The internal-combustion engine will continue to be very important.

If Obama wins and you had a line-item veto on his energy plan, what would you eliminate?
His energy plan is largely pious hope. He hopes they can make breakthroughs and do this or that.

Obama said in one of the debates that Americans need to sacrifice and cut back their energy usage. How do you think that'll fly as part of the solution?
Just as well as it did with Jimmy Carter. People don't elect presidents who tell them to sacrifice. They elect presidents who solve problems so they don't have to sacrifice.

The cost of oil is less than half what it was earlier this year. Will talk about green tech and energy efficiency dissipate?
It's not going to go away for two reasons. First, even with prices lower, we're still sending money overseas to people who turn around and use that money to buy our companies. Second is that long-term demand from China and India for oil and gas is inevitable. This won't go away. Civilizations are growing, and as more and more people desire a better life all over the world, they're going to use more energy.