Tom Steyer’s GOP Debate Climate Ad Has One Major Flaw

The billionaire activist is glossing over the difference between what turns on the lights and what makes cars go.

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco

Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist using his fortune to battle climate change, made an idealistic appeal in an ad that ran during Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate.

“America has never been a country of quitters. It’s not who we are,” a narrator states over patriotic images in the ad run by Steyer’s NextGen Climate group. “We don’t ignore threats like climate change. We face our problems head on.”

OK, good so far.  But then the ad flies of the rails a little. Against a backdrop of solar panels and wind turbines, the ad states: “With American-made clean energy, we can end our dependence on foreign oil, spark new innovation, and create millions of new jobs.”

That leaves the distinct impression that wind and solar energy are substitutes for oil in the U.S energy market. And that’s not really true—because wind and solar are used to generate electricity, while oil is barely a factor in power markets.

The U.S. generates just 1 percent of its electricity with oil. Instead, oil is used primarily to fuel cars, trucks, planes, and other vehicles. (Indeed, the U.S. dependence on foreign oil is plummeting, but that’s because of rising domestic production, better auto efficiency, and other factors.)

The growth of wind and solar power, along with the natural-gas boom and environmental rules, have instead helped to lower carbon emissions by reducing coal’s share of the U.S. power mix. Coal was once the dominant source of U.S. electricity and still supplied half of U.S. power a decade ago; these days it is well under 40 percent.

But wind and solar are not really substitutes for oil’s dominant use as a fuel for transportation.

At least, not yet. In the long term, there’s a near-carbon-free future in which all cars are electrified—and that electricity all comes from carbon-free sources like wind and solar. That, however, is a long way off. Right now, among all U.S. sales, electric cars account for only a tiny fraction.

A spokeswoman for Steyer’s NextGen Climate group, defending the ad, emphasized the future of electric vehicles. "Clean energy will reduce oil usage in both the utility sector and the transportation sector, ultimately ending our dependence on foreign oil," Suzanne Henkels said.

"Utilities will find significant value from new [electric vehicles] coming online that can be charged midday when there is excess capacity of solar, allowing them to be utilized for both transportation and storage," she said.

This story has been updated.