Conservation for Conservatives

Republican Rep. Chris Gibson recently announced that he will not be seeking a fourth term in Congress come 2016. While talk has swirled around the possibility of him running for statewide office, Gibson has so far declined to make his intentions clear—saying only that he will “consider it.” Even so, it’s looking like the congressman will soon be spending a lot more time in New York, where he takes a keen interest in energy policy and environmental issues.

In a Q&A with City & State, Gibson talks about reconciling his dual beliefs in environmental and fiscal stewardship, the need for public investment in developing renewable energy technologies, and his outlook on hydrofracking and the traditional energy sectors.

The following is an edited transcript.


City & State: How did you become interested in energy policy?

Chris Gibson: I grew up in a working class family in Columbia County. My dad was a working class laborer with the trades. I’m 50 years old this year, so when the gas and the home heating prices were spiking in the 1970s, that crushed my family. You see a lot in the political discourse about helping the middle class. Let me tell you—want to help a working class family? You have them pay less for energy. Right now we’re paying $1.60 less for gas and paying $1 less for home heating. I mean, some of the people in upstate New York drive 30 to 40 miles one way to get to work—so when you’re talking $1.60 less for gas, that’s real money! When you look at the GDP growth—and this last time [2014, fourth quarter] it came in at 2.6, but the quarter before at 5, and in the previous quarter above 4—that’s in part driven by the fact that middle class families pay 96 percent of their take-home pay. And when they get it in their pockets, historically, they spend it.

C&S: How can the U.S. lower energy costs?

CB: Let me talk about some specifics: You talk about lowering energy costs now—that means I support expanded [oil] exploration. The President said two weeks ago that he wanted to do more exploration off the Atlantic coast. I support that. When we expand supply, generally speaking, that lowers price. And the pipeline: I support the pipeline, not only because I think it will expand supply, but also when you look at risk, when you look at New York State, we take on a significant amount of risk with the Bakken [crude oil] moving through the state—through the Mohawk Valley and the Hudson Valley. We need to attenuate that risk, and what’s more risky, moving by vehicle and train, or by pipeline? I would argue that there’s more risk in the former. So the U.S. State Department talked about the fact that they’re looking at the pipeline as carbon-neutral, because when you add up all the CO2, moving it by truck and then by train, you’re at about a wash.

C&S: What about renewable energy?

CB: I want to be clear that my policies are very pragmatic. I’m looking to lower energy costs today. But you know, this is a country that can do hard things. We’ve shown that—we’ve put a man on the moon. And we can be the country that perfects clean and renewable energy and when we do that it will democratize energy. We will transform the way we produce, convey and consume energy when we are able to drive down, for example, the total cost of photovoltaic for solar power. We have a program now called the SunShot program, and I have been working to try and plus up that account. It’s research and development and prototyping to drive the total cost of photovoltaics down to six cents per kilowatt-hour. It’s a very aggressive goal, but I’m optimistic that we’re going to make significant progress because we’re using some of the same approaches, and indeed some of the same engineers that we used for your iPhone and your iPad are now focused on renewable energy and solar power. That would be nanotechnology coatings and composites, and substitute materials, because you know, you need the gold and silver now for manufacturing and of course you see the price of that. I think we’re going to see significant progress in driving down the total cost of solar power. And it’s not just solar. I support wind power, geothermal, biomass—there’s room for even more improvement there in biomass. It will be good for the economy, it will be good for our foreign policy—less reliance on fossil fuels—and it will be good for the environment.

We also need to look at means of conveyance, and it looks like the state is moving in the right direction with its focus on microgrids. Microgrids empower local communities: Look at the Oswego Electrical Co-op in Oswego County. These electrical co-ops are already working. I mean, they actually vote on their budgets and they vote for their leaders and hold them accountable. So when people say that microgrids can’t work, I say ‘It’s already working!’ And I know that the state is looking at maybe working to proliferate that and I think that that would be very helpful.

C&S: You have taken interest in environmental issues as well.

CB: Well we clearly have a change in weather patterns. Take a look at Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. We’re seeing a greater frequency of these storms, more violent storms, and there’s a discernable rise in the sea level. Climates have been changing since time out of memory, and clearly it’s going on now and I do believe that humans contribute to this. Being good stewards of the environment should be an issue that appeals to everyone. Look, if conservation isn’t conservative then words have no meaning at all. 

You know, when the Environmental Defense Fund ran a TV ad for me, and they said here’s the guy who is working to bring people together to lower energy costs while protecting the environment, that's exactly what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to help balance current and future needs. When you’re talking about the future—and millennials get this, sometimes there’s a bit of a generational challenge here—but sometimes down here in Washington the left and the right talk past each other. You know, the Right will say: “The Left, they don’t get it. There’s this deficit, and the debt, and we’re going to end up bequeathing this mountain of debt to future generations.” And then the Left says, “The Right—there’s this Earth, we’ve got issues of sustainability—and the right doesn't get it and we’re going to be handing this off to future generations.” You know what’s interesting about that? They’re both saying the same thing. The Left and the Right are both saying, “We need to be good stewards. We need to make good choices about our resources, because we need to be conscious of what we pass on to the next generation.” I’m passionate about driving current costs down while at the same time trying to balance future needs and risk. My voting record reflects this.

C&S: How do you feel about cap-and-trade and carbon taxation?

CB: I don’t support the taxation. I opposed cap-and-trade, I’ll make that clear. I don’t think you need to do this by taxing. Think about this country in the 1950s and the 1960s, dealing with the existential threat of the Soviet Union. We as a people put a significant amount of effort into research, development and prototyping to make sure that we could deter the Soviet Union. And at the end of the day, we saw the end of the Cold War and the changing of the international landscape. At the same time, we saw significant investments over that period from the 1950s to essentially 1989 or so, and in the 1990s as the world was changing, all those decades we were using those investments. What else did it help with? Well it helped with the Internet and the information age. So we have shown that these kinds of investments have significant geometric impact for life here in our country and what I’m saying is that when we make these investments in research and development, in this case now in renewable energy, you will democratize energy. I think it’ll help small businesses. It’ll help hardworking families. And as you do all this your are also helping the environment—you can do it without taxing and you can do it without cap-and-trade, which would really climb up on the back and cause collateral damage by negatively impacting farmers, and manufacturers, and even families depending on how they would work it.

C&S: What is your stance on hydrofracking?

CB: Let science lead the way here—the [state] Department of Health is. Some of the reports have been inaccurate too, saying New York’s is going to permanently ban fracking. That’s not what I read in the Department of Health’s report. It’s less than 100 pages, and it says that they couldn’t recommend greenlighting it at this time. They’re saying we don’t know enough. And they point to three studies: An EPA study we think will be finalized by 2016, and at least two studies that we expect to be finalized in the next 18 months from Pennsylvania, where they do fracking now.

It’s important that we protect our water and our air. I’m the co-author of the [bi-partisan] FRAC Act in Congress, which would require the disclosure of chemicals in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The regulatory state is certainly not robust enough in my view to deal with this. We could also focus our research and development to capture methane better. Look, I think we could get to a place where we could get the gas from the shale without harming the water or the air, but we’re not there right now.

C&S: As a Republican, how do you reconcile holding these views?

CB: I grew up in a working class family. I’m a Republican inspired by Abraham Lincoln, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt, inspired by Ronald Reagan—and the nexus of those three is really the governing principles that I have. Teddy Roosevelt was a strong believer in conservation. There is a strong value in being good stewards of our resources. And on the right with regard to fiscal policy: we also need to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar. These are both precious resources. It’s about current and future needs and I do think there is a good way to balance these things.

C&S: Do you see Republicans changing their attitudes on climate change?

CB: There are several votes you should probably study. There were three votes on climate change in the Senate: One of them, on the question of whether climate change is real, that vote was 98 to 1. And then the two other questions on the amendment are—“Are humans significantly contributing to it?” That had six Republicans. And then, “Are humans contributing to it?” And I think that had 15 or 16, out of 54. So I think there is certainly recognition that climate change is real.

Look, I think we should be more humble. Of course we don’t know the level, but it’s reasonable to conclude that humans do have a role in this. We do still have more to learn about how significant it is. But as good conservatives, and as reasonable people across the ideological spectrum, we need to be good stewards of our resources.

C&S:What are thoughts about running for statewide office in 2018?

I haven’t promised anything. I will consider it. But I have a job to do right now.