WASHINGTON >> Mitt Romney, true to his roots as the son of an auto executive, was talking about cars.
It was May 2006. Romney, the Massachusetts governor, was chatting up his Montana counterpart about his vision for an energy-efficient car of the future — lightweight and narrow, with tandem-style seating, so that two vehicles could drive side by side in one highway lane.
“He was getting animated about all these little cars that would be driving around in these lanes,” Brian Schweitzer, the Montana governor, recalled in an interview. Schweitzer, a Democrat, laughed, thinking about how Republicans might react. “I said, ‘Mitt, if you ever run for president, don’t ever talk about that again.”’
Today, as the Republican nominee for president, Romney is far more apt to talk about oil drilling than energy-efficient cars. He has presented a plan to open up more land and coastline to oil and gas drilling, grant speedy approval to the Keystone pipeline to transport crude oil from Canada to the United States, end wind and solar power subsidies and curb regulations that discourage burning coal for electricity. It is an agenda far different than the one he outlined in his early days as governor.
He populated his Massachusetts administration with environmentalists, including one, Gina McCarthy, who now runs the clean air division of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. He railed against the “Filthy Five,” high-polluting power plants in the state. He issued a “climate protection plan” and lauded it as “among the strongest in our nation.” Under his direction, Massachusetts helped create a regional cap-and-trade program — anathema to most Republicans — intended to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists believe cause global warming.
But at the last minute, Romney refused to sign the greenhouse gas pact that his aides had spent more than two years negotiating; industry opposed it, and some former Romney policy advisers say his political team feared that it would doom his chances for the presidency. A current campaign policy adviser, Oren Cass, said Romney simply evaluated the proposal and “concluded the costs imposed on the economy would be too high.”
Today in Massachusetts, environmentalists credit Romney with helping to promote smart growth and reducing air pollution by putting in place tough regulations curbing certain toxic emissions from power plants. They also praise him for signing into law a bill embracing oil spill prevention measures. But many feel betrayed by his surprise reversal on the climate change pact.
“He was ahead of his time and very progressive,” said Jack Clarke, who was appointed to an ocean management task force by Romney and now directs public policy at Mass Audubon, a conservation group. “But by the end of his administration, he seemed to have gotten Potomac fever. The conservation agenda he had didn’t seem to be a core conviction.”
A POLICY DEVELOPS
Romney got an up-close lesson in conservation growing up in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where his father, George, ran the American Motors Corp. The car company, which like its competitors marketed big, gas-hungry cars, was struggling. George Romney turned the company around by marketing the Rambler — a boxy, no-frills but fuel-efficient vehicle. Time Magazine put him on its cover.
“One of the most anticipated announcements at our house every year was the winner of the Mobil Economy Run, and Rambler often won because it achieved 30 miles a gallon or more — not bad even by today’s standards,” Romney wrote in his book, “No Apology.” “Dad called his competitors’ cars ‘gas guzzling dinosaurs,’ a term that he helped make popular.”
Decades later, when he was governor, Romney remarked to an adviser, Rob Gray, that “we’d be a lot better off in this country if we had European gas prices” because Americans would buy more energy-efficient cars. He also invited Amory B. Lovins, the head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research organization devoted to energy efficiency, to meet with him in Boston. While Lovins “shared his vision of a 75 mpg hybrid automobile built with high strength steel and composites,” Romney wrote, “I shared my own dream for a super-efficient commuter vehicle.”
When Romney ran for governor in 2002, he fashioned himself “in the tradition of New England Yankee Republicans,” Clarke said — a tradition in which “the environment is a nonpartisan issue.”
He was animated by ideas like smart growth and sustainable development, former aides say. He wanted high-density housing clustered near public transportation, pedestrian-friendly urban areas and parks. To carry out his vision, he created an Office of Commonwealth Development, headed by an uber-secretary who would integrate policy in housing, transportation, energy and the environment.
The man Romney installed in that job was Doug Foy, who had spent 25 years at the helm of the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group that had sued Massachusetts numerous times on matters ranging from air pollution to cleaning up Boston Harbor. Foy says he found Romney “intellectually struck” by environmental concerns, though he filtered them through a business-friendly lens.
He would ask, “Is there a role for government, or do you just let the market rip?” Foy recalled.
Foy’s hiring rankled business executives. Environmentalists, though, were thrilled.
“It was like Nixon to China,” said Ian Bowles, a Democrat who later served as energy secretary to Deval Patrick, the current Massachusetts governor. “Here was a left-leaning Republican who was going to be able to accomplish things on the environment that Democrats had not been able to do.
Here’s the CEO of the most powerful environmental group, going to take on a super-secretariat with the governor saying all the right things on greenhouse gases, smart growth and the clean tech industry.”
One of the first issues Romney and Foy tackled involved an aging coal plant in Salem, Mass., that was spewing dirty particulates and was required by state regulations to clean up by 2004. The plant’s owner wanted extra time. The governor said no; three weeks into his administration, he denounced the company at a news conference.
“He strongly wanted to clean up the air,” said Eric Kriss, who founded the private equity firm Bain Capital with Romney and followed him to the Statehouse to become finance secretary. The governor and his entourage drove to Salem, where Romney confronted angry pickets — coal workers who said he was costing them their jobs.
“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” Romney thundered. “And that plant, that plant kills people.”
‘NO REGRETS’ STRATEGY
By the time Romney took office in January 2003, Massachusetts was already developing a “climate protection plan” focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Back then Romney — who has said he believes that “climate change is occurring” and that “human activity is a contributing factor,” though he is not certain how much — simply avoided the question of the scientific evidence, which prompts skepticism from some conservatives.
“We didn’t have a big conversation about the science,” said Sonia Hamel, who advised Romney on climate change.
The resulting 53-page document, released in 2004, laid out a blueprint for what Romney called his “no regrets” strategy. It called for, among other things, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 — a pledge adopted in 2001 by a bipartisan group of New England governors — and it promoted hybrid cars and “clean, fuel-efficient vehicles for the state fleet.” Romney argued that no matter what people believed about climate change, the measures would be good for the economy.
In New York, another Republican governor, George E. Pataki, wanted to do even more. In the summer of 2003, Pataki invited Romney to participate in regional negotiations to develop a cap-and-trade program — a market-based trading system to regulate emissions from power plants, in which businesses would buy and sell pollution credits — for states in the Northeast. Romney said he was open to the idea.
Power companies and other businesses lobbied against the plan, saying it would drive up electricity costs. At a clean energy conference in November 2005, though, Romney spoke favorably of it.
“This is a great thing for the Commonwealth,” he said, according to The Boston Globe, arguing that the pact would prompt businesses to develop clean and renewable energy technology.
But the following month, after more than two years of intense negotiations between Massachusetts and eight other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — Romney started getting cold feet. Hamel, who was leading the negotiations for Massachusetts, said Romney’s chief of staff, Beth Myers, insisted that Romney would sign on only if the deal included a limit on what power plants would have to pay to emit pollution — a condition that New York and several other states opposed.
Myers declined to be interviewed. Hamel saw Myers’ involvement as a sign that Romney’s political team was concerned about how the plan would affect his presidential ambitions. Franz Litz, the chief negotiator for New York, said he viewed Romney’s new conditions as “a ruse.”
But Eric Kriss, the Bain co-founder, said the process simply reflected Romney’s decision-making style.
“I think he just didn’t get comfortable at the very end, but he didn’t want to stop a creative activity,” Kriss said. “It was like that at Bain Capital. He would let some partner pursue some deal, and at the end he would say, ‘I know you worked on this for six months, but we’re not going to do it.”’
The other states eventually went ahead without Massachusetts (and Rhode Island, which also dropped out), and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, known as “REGGIE,” became the first market-based regulatory program in the nation focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Massachusetts has since joined under Patrick, but in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has announced his intention to drop out.
On Dec. 12, 2005, in an interview on national television, Romney embraced drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a position that, like his withdrawal from the cap-and-trade negotiations, aligned him more closely with the right wing of his party.
A few days later, the governor informed the people of Massachusetts that he would not be seeking re-election — a sign, many residents believed, that he had set his sights on the presidency.