Newt Gingrich Jumps the Shark

March 8, 2012 |

Ol’ Gramps Gingrich gets feisty and forgetful on the stump, mocking Obama for reviving a Reagan Administration program for algal biofuels. Today, we look at the Gingrich Test.

“[Obama is] so nervous about gasoline prices and energy that he’s done two major speeches. I  thought today, one of the most shallow and self-serving comments by a president that I’ve heard in a long time.” — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking in Atlanta on 3/6/12

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped the shark this week, in a set of remarks following his Georgia primary victory speech, that we thought were some of clearest and most sad indicators that the Speaker should, to protect his legacy, consider getting out of the Republican race.

(Jumped the…what? background on jumping the shark is here.)

The Speaker is still feisty on the stump, but we see it increasingly as the cranky feistiness of ol’ Gramps, getting forgetful in his old age.

The text of his remarks is here, from a Fox News report.

He said: “Now the fact is I’d love to debate this president because when you read these speeches, they are so deliciously incoherent, they are the perfect case study of liberalism run amuck.”

Well, let’s look at that. What we saw, ourselves, was not a case of liberalism run amok, but a case of Obama co-opting a long-term policy on algal biofuels that originated in the Reagan Administration. Would Gingrich oppose commercialization of a Reagan-era technology platform that he once voted in favor of developing from the public purse? Hmm, looks like he does.

The Speaker added: “The president says, ‘the republicans have three strategies: drilling, drilling drilling.’ And I want to say tonight, Mr. President this is one of the rare occasions where I can say you are right.”

He then proceeded to mock President Obama for supporting algae-based biofuels as part of his all-of-the-above energy strategy that included oil, natural gas, wind, solar, and biofuels.

Speaker Gingrich then went on to say: “Then [the President] offered his practical solution. Anybody here remember what it was?  Algae. Algae. I mean I think this summer as gas prices keep going up, one of our campaign techniques should be to go to gas stations with jar of algae and say to people would you rather have the Gingrich solution of drilling and having more oil or would you like to try to put this in your gas tank. I’m amazed that SNL hasn’t taken that speech and turned that into a skit. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Taking the Gingrich Test

Now, let’s think about that Gingrich Test for a second. On the surface, it sounds like a cartoonist’s dream, Obama stuffing pond scum into a gas tank while Gingrich rides off to the White House in a car that actually runs. It may be good cartoon material, but it’s not going to pass Mythbusters muster.

You see, if you put straight algal oil into a diesel engine, it will run. For long-term engine health you probably want to take out the glycerine, which is what biodiesel is – straight veggie oil without the glycerine. But you can run on straight algal oil, and there are trucks all over the world running on what they call SVO.

But let’s take the other side of what we should call the Gingrich test.

Any day you like, put crude oil into your diesel tank, or pour some crude oil in your gasoline tank, if you prefer. You won’t get a hundred yards down the road before you kill your engine, if in fact you could start the engine at all.

More refining capacity

As everyone knows, cars don’t run on crude oil, you have to refine it. And in order to meet rising fuel demands around the world, the world needs more refining capacity. There’s the bio-based refinery, or the fossil-based refinery, or hybrids of the two. Because there are different types of refineries, there are different types of refined products – whether it is fossil gasoline, renewable diesel, ethanol or what have you.

But we don’t actually put crude oil in our tanks, any more than we generally put bananas, underwear, or transcripts of silly political speeches in there.

Now, building refining capacity, whether it is bio-based, fossil-based, or a hybrid, is neither cheap or easy, which is why there haven’t been any new fossil fuel refining sites built in the US since the 1970s (though capacity has expanded at existing refineries). It’s one of the reasons why prices spike in the US so quickly when demand shoots up, especially in California – tight refining capacity.

Building these monsters is necessary for transport fuel, plastics, fertilizers, solvents, paints, food, pharmaceuticals, animal feed and a host of other popular products. No one is going to build one without a stable long-term manufacturing policy, and near-universal support from stakeholders amongst government, lenders and the local community.

Fossil vs renewable molecules – price over the long-term

Bio or fossil, which is the long-term winner? We think bio-based. In the long-term, as the biotechnology revolution continues, those molecules are going to be made for less.

By contrast, the price of fossil fuels has been rising for forty years , and we have a rising population and less fossil fuel in the ground every time a barrel is extracted. The math is inescapable.

Puttin’ all my eggs in one basket

Which is why a strategy based on “drilling, drilling, drilling” has the long-term financial appeal of, say, parking all your investment dollars with Bernard Madoff or Allen Stanford because the short-term returns make you feel so smart and happy.

Sure, new discoveries of oil & gas will alleviate the pain at the pump from time to time, and rising prices will make certain known reserves affordable, and technology will provide breakthroughs on the cost of recovering fossil oil and gas – and for those reasons, oil and gas will be around, at scale, for a long time. And need investment, and support too.

But for the United States, in the long-term, one has to look at the fact that the country has 2 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves, and 11 percent of the world’s arable land. Over time, that petroleum reserve is sure to fall, while that arable land reserve could be stable for all time. Basing a country that has 25 percent of the world’s GDP on 2 percent of the petroleum reserves, and nothing else, is a recipe for long-term dependence on imported energy.

What did all that oil and gas come from?

Speaker Gingrich continued: “But what made it really totally and intellectually incoherent, was literally 2 pages after he explined drilling doesn’t work, the president explains we’ve had this great breakthrough of natural gas. That we now have thanks to new technology over 100 year supply of natural gas. That in fact we’re going to create 600k new jobs in next decade out of natural gas. And I’m still waiting for White House reporters to come out of their comatose reelect Obama stance and ask the following question, how does the president think we discovered the natural gas?”

Well, one other question that both White House reporters, and the Speaker’s staff might ask – is where exactly did all that oil and gas actually come from?

Algae. Yep, it’s all made from algae.

That’s right, every drop of natural gas and oil are made from that stuff that Speaker Gingrich said you can’t run a car on. Those molecules have been converted, for free, into an underground reserve of hydrocarbon soup by the geological heat and pressures of the earth. But they are all algae.

All fossil fuels are algae fuels, and all cars everywhere run on a substance refined from algae.

Which is why we have to get to a more sophisticated debate than “algae vs not algae”. We have to think in terms of “new algae vs ancient algae”.

Republicans should be proud that one of the principal energy initiatives during the years of the Reagan Revolution was the focus on the production of fleet-compatible fuels from newly-made algae. It was called the Aquatic Species Program and every good Republican ought to take a look at it, because it represents foundational knowledge that we continue to benefit from today.

And every Democrat might want to reflect on that achievement before bagging on the Republican Party for being completely in bed with fossil fuels. Any Democratic President would be lucky to have had such a program blossom on their watch. We’ll benefit from it, for centuries.

Oh, there’s probably some foolhardy reporter who will point out that the Aquatic Species Program dates back to the Carter Administration, but at that time it was a program to produce hydrogen from algae.

The Reagan Administration and the national algal biofuels program

The vital pivot from hydrogen to transportation fuel as a product from algae was undertaken by the Reagan Administration, and was continued under the Bush Administration.

The program, in fact, was shut down under the stewardship of Secretary Hazel O’Leary, a Democrat serving under President Bill Clinton. And I sure don’t recall to many happy comments being tossed President Clinton’s way during the 1990s by Congressman Gingrich, who was serving as Speaker of the House at the time.

Where was the “you rock, President Clinton” speech from Speaker Gingrich then? “Man, we need to really hand it to you, Mr. President, for killing off that weird algae program, and making the world more safe for drilling.” That would have been the hour to give that speech.

Not now. Here’s why.

It goes back to why the algae R&D program was shut down. At the time, the researchers concluded that 1990s energy prices were too low by a third to support algal biofuels. That was in the days of $20 oil. They thought that oil would have to be at something astronomic, like $80 a barrel, for algal biofuels to make sense.

Times have changed. Oil hit $135 in 2008. Today, West Texas intermediate is at $106 a barrel. Miles above $80. That’s why the algal R&D was restarted. That’s why so many people are getting behind the technology.

How did they find all that natural gas?

But, let’s go back to the question that Speaker Gingrish posed, and take it at face value — how exactly does the President think we discovered the natural gas?

Well, that’s simple, we went exploring for the ancient algal reserves. Where the algae was 60 million years ago, that’s where the oil and gas is today.

Is that a smart idea, looking for ancient algal reserves and pumping out the gas and oil that is their legacy? Heck yes. Is it enough, all by its lonesome? Heck no.

It is fair to say that you can’t build a country on top of things you find by the side of the road, or under it, unless you want to have the long-term economics of Nauru.

Industrial economies are built on a manufacturing base – which is another way of saying a refining base – whether you refine steel, plastics and glass into cars, or refine bio-based materials into food, feed, pharmaceuticals and fuel.

It is more than drill, baby, drill – it is make, baby, make – and bio-based refining is a long-term base for the United States, because that is where the numbers tell where there are the long-term feedstocks are going to increasingly come from to feed, clothe and transport a rising population.

Which of course the Speaker knows, because in other times he has been a ready friend of agriculture and bio-based manufacturing. In fact, POET is one of his key backers.

Which is why we think his remarks are an example of old Gramps jumping the shark.

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