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05.10.11

Newt Gingrich's Dirty Polluter Money

The latest 2012 contender has vacuumed up donations from energy companies that environmental groups say are the some of the worst polluters in the country—as he wages war on the EPA. Eve Conant on where the money is coming from and what’s at stake.

Nixon created it, Newt wants to scrap it.

The newest Republican contender for the White House says the Environmental Protection Agency should be replaced with a more business-oriented model. And it just so happens that Newt Gingrich has drawn big-time financial support from huge energy companies that would love to be liberated from EPA regulation.

The subject has been something of a crusade for the former House speaker, who told a conservative conference in February that “what you have from Obama administration is a war against American energy.”

It is a war that has very much engaged Gingrich’s American Solutions group, a nonprofit organization that champions conservative principles and whose bloggers rage against the “job-killing” EPA. Among its biggest donors are are corporations that environmental groups say are the some of the worst polluters in the country.

“Newt is proposing a way where you can get wealthy and protect the environment at the same time,” says a spokesman.

Coal, power, and offshore-drilling-related companies donated a combined $1,550,000 to American Solutions in 2010 alone, its second largest source of money after casino funds from the Las Vegas Sands. These donors include Peabody Energy, American Electric Power, Devon Energy, and Arch Coal, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Navin Nayak, senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, says several of these companies have consistently fought efforts to curb pollution and rein in climate change. “I’m sure they wouldn’t be giving money to him if they didn’t think he held their same extreme views,” Nayak says.

Peter Altman, climate campaign director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, also expresses concern over the coal companies: “Anything they think is not in the interest of coal they will fight—including making sure the public is protected from pollution.”

A company of particular concern to environmentalists is American Electric Power, which contributed $400,000 to American Solutions. The AEP is the force behind draft legislation, the Electric Power Regulatory Coordination Act of 2011, to weaken and delay clean-air standards, environmentalists say. Three leading national environmental groups said in a statement Tuesday: “Columbus, Ohio-based AEP is one of the largest emitters of toxic air pollution in the country. In 2008, AEP emitted more mercury, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide pollution than any other American utility.”

“It’s not a just a bad bill,” says Altman. “It’s a deadly bill.” The press release, issued by the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Council, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, adds that the draft legislation, if it became law, could contribute to “as many as 34,000 deaths, 220,000 asthma attacks, and 1.5 million missed work days.”

That’s nonsense, says Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler. “All that makes for great fundraising copy, and that’s their objective,” he says. “These organizations have been writing these kinds of letters for decades. Where are all these dead people?”

Tyler says the concept of replacing the EPA “is Newt’s idea—the coal industry did not come up with it.” Gingrich doesn’t merely want to abolish the EPA, says Tyler, he wants to replace it with an “Environmental Solutions Agency” that manages to save jobs and the environment at the same time.

Gingrich also isn’t the only EPA skeptic out there; conservative Senate Republicans have introduced legislation to merge the EPA with the Department of Energy. Why such opposition? By killing jobs, says Tyler, the EPA is making America poorer, “and the wealthier a country is, the more likely it is to have clean air and water.”

The companies that support Gingrich couldn’t agree more. American Electric Power paints a grim picture of life under EPA regulations if they remain unchanged.

A spokeswoman for the company, Melissa McHenry, tells The Daily Beast that donations to American Solutions amount to $300,000, not $400,000, and were made because “some of their positions about domestic energy policy align with AEP’s positions.” But she sought to distance the company from some of Gingrich’s more extreme ideas. “We do not agree with all of the positions of Newt Gingrich or American Solutions,” she says. “We absolutely do not agree with efforts to abolish the EPA.”

McHenry adds that the company is “not trying to turn back the Clean Air Act” with its legislation, but that if the EPA’s current approach goes unchanged, “20 to 30 percent of coal-fueled power plants in our nation will be shut down, thousands of power-plant employees will be out of work, and electricity prices will spike, rising as much as 50 percent in many states.”

Instead of issuing EPA-style top-down edicts that cause job loss and suffering, says Gingrich spokesman Tyler, “Newt is proposing a way where you can get wealthy and protect the environment at the same time.”

The view is very different, not surprisingly, at the agency under fire. “There’s a reason ‘Protection’ is EPA’s middle name,” says spokesman Brendan Gilfillan. “It’s because for over 40 years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, EPA scientists and public servants have worked to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink. Every day EPA works to enforce life-saving laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act that cut down on the harmful pollution that causes asthma, heart disease, and other illnesses, especially in children and seniors.”

Recent polls also show little support for Gingrich’s EPA idea. According to an April CNN poll: “A wide majority, 71 percent, thinks the government should continue to fund the Environmental Protection Agency and its efforts ‘to enforce regulations on greenhouse gases and other environmental issues.’ Only 28 percent favors legislation that would prevent the EPA from spending any money on those efforts. Even a majority of Republicans, 53 percent, wants the government to continue funding the EPA.”

These questions will be put to the test if Gingrich, who announces his exploratory committee Wednesday, puts the EPA at the forefront of his presidential campaign.

Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.