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Rick Santorum Evolved On Gas Prices, Energy Policy

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For several days now, Mitt Romney has faced criticism for his major reversal on the causes and ramifications of high gas prices. After all, it was just a few years ago when, as governor of Massachusetts, he was touting the need for fuel diversity, energy-efficient vehicles and conservation, as well as the behavioral benefits of being forced to buy more expensive gas.

Today, Romney is a Republican presidential candidate demanding more drilling and immediate relief at the pump. But if he is to be tarred as being inconsistent on energy policy, so too should his chief rival for the nomination, former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the winter of 2008, the Pennsylvania Republican said that the government should "mandate" that "all cars sold in the United States, starting with the 2010 model year, be 'flex-fuel vehicles.'" Santorum knew that the idea would be controversial, and prefaced it by telling his "hard-core conservative friends" to "hold on to your hats." But, he added, forcing cars to run on a blend of ethanol and gas, or a "coal-derived methanol/gas mixture," would save oil and cost less than increasing fuel economy standards.

Then and today, environmentalists scoff at such a proposal.

"Neither of those are an environmentally friendly fuel," said Jeff Schmidt, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club. "He tends to shy away from the use of mandates except in these economic interests that he's pandering to -- the coal industry and the corn farming folks."

Still, the article reflected Santorum's openness to address the issue of high gas prices with a platform that went beyond increased drilling. During his 2006 re-election campaign, Santorum was pressed on the issue of oil dependency in an interview with KDKA radio personality Fred Honsberger. According to a partial transcript of the interview -- provided to The Huffington Post by a Democratic opposition researcher from that campaign -- Santorum pointed out that "the good news" of high gas prices was that "the hot thing in venture capital is to look for [alternative] energy." The Huffington Post requested a full transcript from KDKA. That request was not immediately returned.

This wasn't an isolated incident. During an April 24, 2006 statement from his Senate office, Santorum urged voters not to get distracted by the prices at the pump. He then pitched clean coal technology.

With gas prices once again reaching all-time highs it is sometimes hard to see the benefit of long-term solutions, but this cutting-edge clean coal technology has the potential to help our nation break from our dangerous and costly dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Three days later, Santorum introduced the formal GOP legislative response to the issue of high gas prices, in his capacity as the Republican chair of the Senate Energy Working Group. The plan, he said during a news conference with fellow senators, included a $100 tax holiday rebate and the immediate authorization of additional drilling –- two items that hardly resemble long-term approaches. But the package also included tax incentives to buy hybrid cars.

"You'll get the ability to be able to go out and buy a vehicle that uses less energy, that uses less gasoline, and you get a tax break for doing so," he explained.

The proposal was promptly ridiculed as ineffective and insufficient, as the $100 rebate equaled the approximate cost of fueling up a car for one month. But Santorum kept up the pitch for a mix of immediate and long-term fixes. In a June 19, 2006 statement from his office, he touted his support for "significant federal funding toward research and development into and production of alternative renewable energy sources" which could, over time, "bring a new industry to the agriculture community, create new jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

Elsewhere that year, he would make the case for bringing energy experts together to help "come up with some basic blends" that could be used either as boutique gasoline or alternate fuels. During an interview with NBC, he declared that the nation had to "diminish the demand [for oil], increase conservation, [and] support alternative sources of fuel." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce would end up running an ad on his behalf, declaring that he supported access "to reliable domestic energy supplies, alternative fuels and conservation."


Through it all, Santorum remained an outright enemy of environmentalists. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 10 percent lifetime ranking in 2006. In 2005, Republicans for Environmental Protection and PennEnvironment gave him a zero. He continued to air doubts about the existence of global warming, supported opening up ANWR for drilling and backed President George W. Bush's controversial 2005 mercury emissions ruling.

But he certainly was more willing to push long-term approaches, alternative fuels, and energy-efficient vehicles as a senator than he has been as a presidential candidate. And the hard-line stance both Santorum and Romney have taken during the current gas price debate reflects how the Republican Party as a whole (and not its individual members) has altered its approach with respect to energy policy.

The Santorum campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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