Speaking against a backdrop covered in green elephants, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sought to thread the needle on Thursday at the Republicans for Environmental Protection’s Theodore Roosevelt banquet, balancing an appeal to moderate environmentalists while keeping his conservative bona fides intact.
GOP critics slammed the presidential candidate for appearing at the event, hosted by a tiny organization whose positions—tackling climate change, conserving public lands—lie far afield from the fiercely partisan, anti-regulatory views of the tea party base that has energized and divided the party.
Some strategists speculated that the speech was a sign that Huntsman is not serious about capturing the GOP nomination—at least this year—and is instead positioning himself to be a leading moderate candidate in 2016. But people close to his campaign say they saw the event as a sign that Huntsman, who is polling in 10th place among Republicans—could ultimately win more support than more partisan candidates in the general election.
Before a diverse audience that included leading environmentalists, energy company executives, and representatives of the notorious Heartland Institute, a free-market organization that denies the validity of climate-change science, Huntsman presented himself as a Roosevelt Republican on the environment: “Conservation is conservative. I’m not ashamed to be a conservationist,” he said. “I also think that science should drive the discussion on climate change.… Our natural and state parks can be a driver of … economic development and of diplomacy.”
Drawing on his experience as President Obama’s ambassador to China, Huntsman laid out an economic and energy plan that, like Obama, stressed competitiveness with China. His plan would “make energy independence a centerpiece issue for our country,” he said.
He also called on Congress to pass legislation immediately to deal with the deficit and debt ceiling, endorsing House Speaker John Boehner’s bill to raise the debt limit by $900 billion, with accompanying spending cuts of about $917 billion, followed by another vote to raise the debt ceiling $1.6 trillion next year with $1.8 trillion in spending cuts—a move that would help the Republican nominee.
“When I look at what is going on in Washington particularly as it relates to debt and spending I am reminded of what Roosevelt said. A typical vice of American politics is avoiding saying anything real on real issues…. None of my opponents have supported a plan…. I personally support the Boehner plan. It should be signed into law,” he said.
Beyond that, he laid out a broad plan to expand the economy, citing the threat of competition from China.
“This is about 21st century competiveness. You think it’s about Iraq, Afghanistan—it’s going to be an economic war that’s fought across the Pacific,” he said.
He painted a picture of the tensions between the environment and economic growth in China. “If you want to get a sense of the international issue of the air quality just walk out any day of the week in Beijing—the most polluted city in the world—and you realize we’re all in this together. But you walk the streets of Beijing and there’s energy and excitement—there’s blue skies as far as they can see, with 8 to 10 percent growth.”
He called for tax reform that would lower the corporate tax rate and, in a nod to the antiregulatory fervor of the tea party, a rollback of government regulations.
“We’ve got to get the regulatory monkey off our back,” he said.
On energy, Huntsman sounded the familiar refrain of lawmakers from both parties, that the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on foreign oil over the last four decades. He said he endorsed the increased use of wind and solar power—but said that increased use of natural gas in the short term would be the transitional fuel to ease the way between oil and renewables.
Natural gas, which produces about 20 percent less carbon dioxide than coal and 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil, is abundantly available in the United States, although environmentalists have raised concerns that the method for extracting much of it, hydraulic fracturing, contaminates drinking water.
“We ought to be converting our truck fleet to natural gas,” he said. In Congress, there is bipartisan support for a bill coauthored by oil magnate T. Boone Pickens that would increase use of natural gas trucks.
Huntsman did not indicate specific support for Pickens’s bill, but said that states should lead the way when it comes to developing alternative energy, pointing to initiatives that he helped lead as in Utah that made the state a leader in natural gas-powered vehicles (starting with his own official governor’s SUV, which he had converted to run on natural gas). He then worked with state utilities to build natural gas pipelines and fueling stations for natural gas vehicles.
“At the local level of government you can create a little revolution,” he said.
He also called on the need for energy research, citing research at the University of Utah into carbon capture and sequestration and projects to turn algae into biofuels. Such research is also a top priority of the Obama administration, although many experts have said in order to make carbon sequestration (which injects pollution from coal-fired electricity underground) commercially viable, only the federal government’s resources will be adequate.
The proposals drew praise from at least one leading environmentalist.
“The move to natural gas, I agree with—but I think you have to look at the environmental issues of fracking. But that’s fundamentally right, we ought to use more natural gas,” said Brooks Yeager, executive vice president for policy of the New Hampshire-based group Clean Air, Cool Planet. “His analysis of where we are internationally is very good. And his experience in China is very telling,” Yeager said, although he conceded that his support “probably won’t help him in Republican circles.”
Outside the event, protesters circled the block in a truck flashing signs reading “Utah’s Al Gore” and “RINOs for EPA.”
Huntsman said that seeing the truck made him smile. “When I saw the protester I thought, “It’s nice to be in the U.S. When I gave speeches in China those protesters never showed up.”