An interview with Mike Gravel about his presidential platform on energy and the environment
In his "Rock" campaign ad,
Mike Gravel silently stares into the camera, throws a stone into a
lake, and walks off into the distance. It's disconcerting,
off-the-wall, and low-budget -- just like his presidential campaign.
As a senator from Alaska during the '70s, Gravel was best-known for
fighting nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and the Vietnam War. In his
current campaign, to the extent that he's known at all, it's for
playing gadfly at Democratic candidate debates. In the environmental
arena, he's got some big ideas -- an international carbon-tax scheme, a
hydrogen-powered energy system, a notion that society needs to end its
obsession with growth -- but little in the way of practical plans.
Will his quixotic presidential campaign cause as many ripples as his
rock? I called him up at his campaign headquarters in Alexandria, Va.,
to try and find out.
For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist's Gravel fact sheet.
What sets your green platform apart from the other candidates'?
First off, I am prepared to impose a carbon tax, at the barrel of oil and at the lump of coal. [Chris] Dodd
has talked about a tax on carbon, but the difference is I approach the
problem as a global problem -- climate change, energy, the whole thing.
By putting a tax on carbon in the United States, we can offer our
leadership to the rest of the world and say, OK, you put a carbon tax
on your people, and then we'll pool all this money together and we'll
use it to integrate the global scientific and engineering communities
to get us off of carbon within a decade. Nobody would be permitted to
join this international effort unless they put a carbon tax on their
What do you see as the advantage of a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade program?
The cap-and-trade wouldn't necessarily lower emissions. Let's say I've
got a coal-fired plant and it pollutes. All I've got to do is go give
some money to somebody who builds a new plant that pollutes less. I get
to buy permission to pollute. When you're capping and trading, you're
not focusing on a solution; you're just giving somebody a break based
upon something that somebody else is doing.
Some say a carbon tax would be political suicide because voters don't like to be taxed. Your thoughts?
I back it in any case.
In a recent debate we were asked a question: What would you do to reduce the price of gasoline?
The candidates all mealymouthed around. My answer before the country
was that I would not do anything. The best way to solve the energy
problem is to let prices rise so that alternative energies can become
One of the things we can do is take electricity
from windmills, run it through water, and have hydrogen. What is now
possible is that we can turn around and have hydrogen liquid. And by
altering the technology of our existing cars and gas stations, they can
be used to run on and distribute hydrogen liquid. Oh, it blows you
away. This can probably be done within five years.
Shift the energy system to hydrogen in five years?
You're not making hydrogen fuel cells, that technology is not on the
table yet. You're making liquid fuel from hydrogen. Now, first off, I
would [raise] CAFE standards immediately, say that within three to five
years you're going to have the same standard as Europe. End of story.
Forget the automobile industry. Meanwhile, we can just manufacture the
hell out of windmills and then turn around and produce all this
Does coal play a role in your vision for a clean-energy future?
You've got to do away with coal. What you can do is outlaw these coal-fired plants and turn them into hydrogen power plants.
Do you believe nuclear power has a role in America's energy future?
I was the one who started the nuclear [power] critique back in 1969,
and we were able to cap [the number of plants in the U.S.] at 150,
which have now been ratcheted back to about 105. The nuclear industry
is trying to crank it back up again, and a couple of significant
environmentalists have bought into that. I have not. If we can have
large electrical base-load plants fed by hydrogen, then we don't have
to have the nuclear.
Now if we were to make a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, that would dwarf everything else.
How much of the energy system would you shift to liquid hydrogen?
As much as we can.
Do you have a specific target?
I'm not an engineer, I'm not a scientist. But I'm told it's not a big
deal to tweak gas stations so that you can come up with a truck, dump
the liquid hydrogen in there, and pump it in your car. So we shift
everything over to liquid hydrogen and there's no more pollution. The
trick is, you've got to produce the electricity to be able to put it
through the water to create hydrogen, and you do that with windmills.
The technology of windmills is totally replicable. And so now you can
put those all over the place where you've got wind, and then later on
you can take down those windmills and have another way of doing it.
I've heard that you have a plan to electrify the entire transportation system of the United States.
Yes, I want to superimpose an electric maglev [train] system
throughout the country similar to the one that currently runs between the airport and the city of Shanghai
These maglevs can travel 300 miles an hour. Imagine if we could move
trucks across this country on electricity at that speed, with no
environmental pollution -- what that would mean?
There are a couple of companies that have sent
me studies that show they can do this right across Manhattan or in
downtown Washington, D.C., and it is just awesomely interesting. But
you have to have a national commitment to do this, and I don't see that
commitment from the Democrats or the Republicans.
What's your position on biofuels? What role does ethanol play in our energy future?
What I know about the corn deal, it takes more energy to produce a
gallon of biofuel from corn than it does to just use conventional fuel,
so that's a negative. Secondly, we have to realize that when we're
growing this stuff, we may be displacing the whole distribution of food
throughout the world.
How about the idea that we could derive fuels from highly fibrous plants?
Like switchgrass? I don't know enough about that. I'm more excited by the liquid hydrogen.
Many people argue that the U.S. should not commit to any global
greenhouse-gas reduction targets that don't involve China and India. Do
you agree, and how would you bring them to the table in a post-Kyoto
First, I would just get the Kyoto agreement [ratified] and get it out of the way.
The Kyoto targets are phasing out soon, so how would you approach a post-Kyoto agreement?
Accelerate the goals. I've read that a number of the European countries
are ahead of their Kyoto targets, which really says something. We need
to get closer to China and India both to collaborate on technology
development -- they're way ahead of us in some areas -- and to help
them, because you cannot deny them the opportunity to have our standard
of living. If we don't do this in a very clever way, we will doom the
Earth to environmental destruction. Period.
After climate and energy, what do you think is the most important environmental issue facing the nation?
Urban growth? Population growth?
It's more complex than that. Our total economy is based upon growth,
growth, growth. Well, there comes a time when you destroy so you can
I want to change our system of revenue from an
income tax to a sales tax. That would change this country from a
consuming nation to a savings nation. If we begin to look upon growth
from a savings point of view, we could do more in the short run with
respect to global warming. Our country right now spends more than we
earn, and we're on our way to bankruptcy.
What environmental achievement are you most proud of?
Starting the nuclear [power] critique. And my work on the Trans-Alaska
Pipeline in the 1970s. The environmentalists were very much opposed to
it. I maintained then, and I still do, that it was a more
environmentally sound way to transport oil than the leaky tankers under
Panamanian registry and Nigerian registry who were coming into the East
Coast of the United States.
Who is your environmental hero?
I'm very fond of my friend Ralph Nader. I think that he is very strong in that area.
Can you tell us about a memorable wilderness or outdoor adventure you've had?
Coming from Alaska, I'm very much into the beauty of nature. I don't
hunt or fish, and I'm not a camera buff, but I just love to luxuriate
in the wilderness. I've done a lot of hiking in my state. The most
significant thing I did was climb the Chilkoot Trail with my family.
Also, while I was in the Senate, the head of
the Sierra Club in Alaska taught me how to handle a raft in whitewater.
At the time, I was opposing some of the Sierra Club's stuff and I was
supporting some of their stuff, and so I accused him of trying to kill
me, because that would have solved his problem. But we still are
If you could spend a week in one park or natural area of the United States, where would it be?
Zion National Park.
What have you done personally to lighten your environmental footprint?
Give us a snapshot of your lifestyle -- where you live and how you
We drive a Camry -- we're a one-car family -- but often I use the
subway. I also use the train and the bus. My wife read that the bus has
the least environmental impact of all public transport. The worst, of
course, is the private jet that my fellow candidates all run around on.
My wife and I live in an apartment in Rosslyn,
Va., on the 14th floor. We're renters, we don't have enough wherewithal
to be able to own something like that -- I didn't get out of the Senate
any better [financially] than I went in. Obviously, I've got the
ability to go and become wealthy, but that's not what has moved me
through my life.
If George Bush were a plant or an animal, what kind of plant or animal would he be?
Oh, my God. [Pause.] I can't think of a plant or an animal that I have
that much disrespect for. Does that answer your question?
Stop and think of all the human beings that
have died and suffered because of that S.O.B. I personally believe that
impeachment is too light a sentence. These people should be pursued
You know, when you're sworn in to be president,
you and the outgoing president have to ride in the car together to the
swearing-in. When Hoover and Roosevelt rode in the same car to
Roosevelt's swearing-in, they never said a word to each other. And I've
got to tell you, when I'm sworn in, the same will go for me and George